, ,

Big Fun on Small Town’s Barren Fork

Cool respite from stuffy summer doldrums; Backwoods-style river adventures inside McMinnville city limits

Set amidst a remarkable panorama of thickset woods, rolling pasturelands, rugged mountain slopes and soaring yonder plateau scarps, McMinnville has for two centuries served as a regional hub of commerce, culture and active leisure.

Writing for the intro to the 2009 “Images of America Series” photography book celebrating the town’s bicentennial, authors Monty Clell Wanamaker and Chris Keathley described how “the sheer exceptional beauty of the ancient and mystical mountains and forests with their spiritual attributes” mesmerized early 19th Century travelers and settlers in what is now Warren County.

So too did “the numerous rivers and streams overflowing with fresh water” that twisted down valleys and cut through the land.

“It was that beauty and grandeur of the region that enthralled the area’s first white settlers,” wrote Keathley and Wanamaker, who passed away at the age of 79 in January. “It would draw to its wilderness many anxious, industrious and learned men who had come to build their homes and lives. And so it was that McMinnville came into being.”

You could say the area has always attracted people who appreciate exploration and seek adventure.

Mickey Heath at Smooth Rapids

So in 2012 when four hometown buddies who grew up together decided to start up a kayak-rental and shuttle service to help introduce visitors and locals alike to the aesthetically fertile Barren Fork and Collins Rivers, they were actually on pretty solid ground historically.

You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boathouse

Early on, they really didn’t envision their enterprise evolving into a full-service launchpad and laid-back landing zone for paddle sport river recreation. It started off just a side hustle from the back of a pickup.

“We bought some boats and were renting them out of our truck — when we’d make a little money we would invest it back in the company,” said Mickey Heath, who along with Michael Lockhart and brothers Jimmy and Todd Barker founded the company that came to be Smooth Rapids.

Located just a few blocks from Main Street McMinnville and the town square on a formerly rundown piece of backstreet river-bottom residential property, today Smooth Rapids is a buzzing restaurant, campground and outdoor music venue.

These days, renting 100-150 boats makes for a pretty good weekend, Heath said, adding, “If you were to tell me that six years ago, I would have said you were crazy.”

Smooth Rapids Outfitters sits on the banks of the Barren Fork River, which gathers from a web of runoff veins in western Warren County. It flows eastward for 23 or so serpentine miles before meeting the Collins River, a tributary of the Caney Fork, just east of McMinnville. The Barren Fork’s lower eight miles shape a lovely and languid course through and then around the edge of town.

Smooth Rapids is aptly named. The lower Barren Fork’s mostly unhurried currents make for typically mellow paddling, requiring only elementary navigation maneuvers.

“This is not whitewater kayaking. It’s more lazy river floating — that’s what the rivers around here are like,” said Heath.

The beauty is hypnotic, though, somehow enhanced by the knowledge you’re floating near a population center, which is often easy to forget as scenes of seemingly secluded sylvan riverscape float placidly by.

Learning to Love to Float

Because of the Barren Fork’s gentle descent grade, beginners of all ages can get the hang of handling a kayak in short and safe order.

Smooth Rapids puts a special emphasis on hosting and organizing floats for kids. Getting youngsters out on the water, piloting their own boat, can be a highly enjoyable confidence-building experience they’ll long remember and draw on.

Heath said all the Smooth Rapids crew tend to “love pretty much everything to do with the outdoors.” So introducing kids to the river who may never have had an opportunity to paddle before is exceptionally rewarding, he said, especially if they’re from more urbanized areas or at-risk backgrounds and maybe don’t often get the opportunity to get out and genuinely encounter nature.

As for the food-serving side of the business, Heath said the river “feeds our restaurant.”

Their decision to open a restaurant was based on straightforward and consistent observations made though firsthand market analysis. “When people get off the water, they are typically hungry. When they get here, they are ready to eat,” Heath said.

The moving-waters theme is apparent on the Smooth Rapids restaurant menu, where you can dive into a fleet of appetizers and craft brews. The entrée list contains a boatload of chicken baskets and sandwiches with names like the River Monster, the Riviera, the Daytripper and the Barren Fork Burger.

Confluence of Commerce and Recreation

In addition to their aim of luring people into a lifelong paddling habit, Smooth Rapids is seeking to promote greater visitation to the region by hosting festive outdoor events like the Aug. 3-5 reggae festival and the Sept. 22 McMinnville Mountain Crawl, an annual endurance-testing “adventure race” consisting of caving, biking, and kayaking around the vicinity.

Heath said he’s big believer in the idea that the rising tide of Warren County tourism commerce will ultimately lift more than just Smooth Rapids’ boats. All McMinnville profits from raising the area’s profile for dynamic outdoor-recreation potential, so it behooves local businesses to work together to make everybody’s visit a memorable one, he said.

“We really consider ourselves partners with the other restaurants in town — we don’t look at them as competition,” he said. “We all work together, because if somebody is going to come into town, maybe like to take in a show at Cumberland Caverns, then they may go to Collins River BBQ on Friday night and then come eat with us on Saturday night and then go to another restaurant on Sunday afternoon. This is what you want, everybody working together to keep that out-of-town traffic in the community having fun and spending money.”

To get in touch with Smooth Rapids, call 931-452-9251 or visit online at smoothrapids.com.

, ,

Design for New Inn at Fall Creek Falls Unveiled

State aiming for August demolition

The public has gotten a first glance at what the proposed new hotel at Fall Creek Falls State Park is supposed to look like when it’s completed.

Architectural renderings of the new facility were released this summer by the agency that oversees state parks management.

The new inn is intended to summon a more hospitable ambience than the old, which was built back in the early 1970s in a sullen, concrete-gray style known as “Brutalism.” Reminiscent of mid-20th Century Soviet-bloc architecture, the old hotel emitted a distinctly drab spirit. A recurring observation was that it more resembled something like a psychiatric hospital or penal institution than a congenial lakeside retreat befitting the sublime character of Tennessee’s most popular state park.

Lodged Where?

The design drawings for the new inn envisage the new structure integrated more harmoniously into the wooded, water’s edge habitat on the gently sloping banks of Fall Creek Lake.

The facades on the new 95,000-square foot inn will consist of “timber framing, stonework details and extended height windows,” which will complement “the natural setting of the park,” according to a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation press release from June 21.

The finished lodge will have three floors and contain “various indoor and outdoor gathering areas including larger meeting and conference space.” The grounds will include “paths connecting the facility to existing recreational trails.”

Construction is anticipated to begin later this year and finish by the summer of 2020.

The new restaurant will serve up an expansive vista of Fall Creek Lake, and guests can dine on a scenic terrace overlooking the water if they chose. The building will also include a bar and lounge area, as well as banquet spaces to facilitate conferences and group retreats.

“The inn is designed to provide spacious views of the lake and of the park’s natural forest that will evoke long-lasting memories for visitors,” said an executive from Earl Swensson Associates, a Nashville-based firm overseeing the project.

But first there’s the matter of demolishing the old building, which although it closed for good on April 1, is still standing as of this writing.

“Right now the schedule calls for demolition to begin August 15, and to be complete by October 31,” David Roberson, spokesman for Tennessee’s Department of General Services, said in a July 10 email.

“The Fall Creek Falls project, which includes demolition of the existing inn, has been in the planning and design phase since May,” he wrote. “A contract for the project is now being finalized, and once it is signed the general contractor will hire various subcontractors, which will include a subcontractor to handle the demolition.”

“Since the contract is not complete yet, we don’t know final cost, nor the cost of the various elements of the contract, such as the demolition,” Roberson added.

Costs Climbing

The total estimated price tag of the demolition-and-rebuild project is now $29.4 million. However, that number has been trending upwards over the past couple years since the Haslam administration first announced plans to tear down and replace the old hotel.

Initial projections called for spending $20-$22 million on the project. Last year the figure was revised to $25 million. The latest, nearly $30 million price tag, was put forward by TDEC in the spring.

“The estimated overall cost of the inn project, which has been in the works for nearly three years, has varied over the course of that time based on a variety of circumstances and variables,” TDEC communications director Eric Ward wrote in an email to Center Hill Sun.

The Haslam administration’s initially proposal to outsource the new facility’s operations to an outside concessionaire, an idea that drew vocal opposition both locally and in the Tennessee Legislature. But the idea only fell fully flat when in 2017 not a single company offered a bid on running the new hotel and conference center.

Gone for now are both the outsourcing proposal and any expectation that the state will get help footing front-end design and development costs on the new facility.

Ward, said “the project was originally part of a potential concessionaire agreement, where a private concessionaire would have theoretically shouldered some of the cost, thereby reducing the cost to the taxpayer.”

“Other factors that have influenced the estimated cost over time include inflation and the cost of demolition and construction materials,” the TDEC spokesman added.

Local Economic Benefits Anticipated

The state has forecasted that the new inn, restaurant and conference center will generate $278,000 annually in local taxes, which is $90,000 a year more than the old facility.

“In the short term, construction activity will bring an estimated $14.7 million in construction-related taxable spending to the area along with more than 100 construction jobs,” according to TDEC’s June 21 news release.

The 26,000-acre Fall Creek Falls park straddles Van Buren and Bledsoe Counties, both of which are considered economically “distressed” by state and federal agencies.

TDEC officials say the old hotel was running occupancy rates below 40 percent. The average hotel occupancy-rate nationally was 65.9 percent in 2017, according to industry estimates used by the Tennessee Hospitality and Tourism Association. In the Southeastern United States, the 2016 average was 61.4 percent and in Tennessee it was 64.5 percent.

, , , , , , ,

Adventure Tourism Mecca in the Making

McMinnville-Warren County looking to cash in on wealth of outdoor riches

It’s almost always possible to imagine better living arrangements or conditions than one’s current circumstances.

But recognizing that the grass isn’t really always greener somewhere else often enables a person not only to enjoy a more contented and fulfilling existence in present time and place, but also to realize that opportunities exist right in one’s own backyard that others may in fact tend to envy.

To that end, business and political leaders in McMinnville have commissioned a comprehensive report demonstrating that, when it comes to the economic potential of tourism in the area, the grass is already pretty green in Warren County.

And it has the potential of getting greener all the time.

The “Adventure Tourism Plan for McMinnville-Warren County, Tennessee,” released in March after more than a year in the making, lends persuasive and meticulous support to a view that’s been dawning for the past decade on many who call the area home.

The plan’s thesis is this: As a result of its location and surrounding natural features and recreational assets — with hills, mountains, scenic rivers, lakes and exceptional beauty abounding that “cannot be created by the hands of man” — Warren County is distinctly suited to take advantage of Tennessee’s thriving tourism industry, with McMinnville serving as an “adventure hub.”

“Due to McMinnville-Warren County’s geographic location on the Eastern Highland Rim and at the foothills of the Cumberland Plateau, natural resources are in abundance with the Collins, Barren Fork, and Caney Fork rivers, Cumberland Caverns – a United States National Natural Landmark, and eight state parks/natural areas within 50 miles,” according to the plan, which was written by Griggs & Maloney, a Murfreesboro-based environmental-engineering planning and consulting firm.

Paid for using part of a $28,000 state tourism development grant, the Adventure Tourism Plan functions as a strategic blueprint for business, community leaders and entrepreneurs to grow the local tourism economy. It also serves as an impressive “inventory of places and activities” already attracting visitors heading out on Tennessee highways looking for adventure.

McMinnville Mayor Jim Haley

“For a long time, our community didn’t really see our natural beauty and our environmental assets as really a selling point,” said McMinnville Mayor Jimmy Haley. “But over the last few years, more and more people have been starting to see that using the mountains and caves and rivers and great climate and lushness all plays into a bigger picture. Those things already are here, we don’t have to build them, and opportunities are basically endless. So there’s no reason we can’t use that as an asset and strategy of get other people to come and appreciate it as well.”

Tapping TN Tourism

The backdrop for the bigger picture is that the Volunteer State as a whole is doing quite well in the realm of tourism development.

Tourism is among the state’s most booming economic sectors, with expenditures from the estimated 110 million people who visited Tennessee surpassing $19.3 billion in 2016, the most recent year comprehensive data is available. That was up 4.7 percent over the previous year, and marked the 11th consecutive year that tourism topped a billion dollars in state and local sales tax revenue.

In 2017, Tennessee earned a ranking — for the fourth consecutive year — among the Top 10 travel destinations in the U.S. And last year it was also deemed the fastest-growing state in America for international travel.

Visitation and spending by nonresidents in Warren County has been rising the past several years as well, as has attendance at state parks in the area, like Rock Island, South Cumberland and Fall Creek Falls.

While “laying a roadmap for the next 20 years” for tourism development in McMinnville and Warren County is a central purpose the adventure plan serves, Haley added that it can also be read as a promotional initiative for the entire region.

“We have to quit thinking of ourselves as singular units,” he said. “When people come to McMinnville, they might decide to go up to Sparta to the Calfkiller Brewery or over to the distillery at Short Mountain. When someone is coming to Cumberland Caverns or the Isha Yoga Center or they’re coming here for the Muskie Tournament or one of our other music venues, or if they’re just floating down the river, they’re not worried whether it’s Warren County. They don’t know if it is White County, Van Buren County or Warren County. All the rivers converge at Rock Island.”

As large metropolitan areas in Tennessee and beyond continue expanding as time goes on, “more and more people are going to be looking for outdoor opportunities,” said Ryan Maloney of Griggs & Maloney, the agency that drafted the plan.

Undoubtedly, more and more are going to discover that the Upper Cumberland is a “jewel,” he said.

Choose Your Own Adventure

An “adventure tourism trip” is generally described by travel-economy analysts and marketing industry professionals as one in which an individual, family or group travels to an area outside their normal realm of day-to-day lifestyle preoccupations for the purpose of engaging in some form of physical activity in a natural environment or as part of some “culturally immersive experience.”

Adventure tourism encompasses more than just higher-energy, adrenaline-elevating activities like rock climbing, mountain and road biking, caving, backcountry backpacking, zip-lining and kayaking — all of which are common activities in or around Warren County. It could also involve consciousness-elevating pursuits like simply exploring some new natural landscape or setting out to gain improved knowledge of, or a better appreciation for, how people live or used to live in a place of historical or ecological interest.

“The definitions of adventure tourism vary as much as the activities,” explains the plan, which catalogs a dizzying index of adventure-seeking pursuits one can embark upon in the vicinity.

Among them are kayaking, rafting, canoeing, paddle boarding, trophy sport fishing, motorized water sports of all manner, road cycling, mountain biking, skydiving, cave exploration trips, zip lining, bungee jumping, geocaching, target shooting, hang gliding/paragliding, historical tours and a spectacularly scenic yoga sanctuary boasting the largest meditation hall in the Western Hemisphere.

“Within 45 miles a visitor can explore eight state parks, access over 125 miles of hiking trails, mountain bike trails, kayaking, numerous waterfalls, caves, zip lining and ropes courses, numerous fishing opportunities, an 18-hole golf course, and a 1,500 to 2,000 year old stone fort,” notes the report. “There are eight state parks and natural areas; two recreational lakes; three rivers that could easily be listed as wild and scenic rivers; rolling hills and mountains; and world class caves and waterfalls all within a 40 mile radius of McMinnville, Warren County.”

Besides all the natural beauty and recreational draw of the area, visitors are also lured by “the cultural resources that represent the heritage of the communities (that) are the tangible link to the past generations who established McMinnville-Warren County many years ago.”

Many activities, places and events that “meld heritage and adventure together to form a more experience based tourism,” are in Warren County, the plan states. And McMinnville in particular — a “quintessential small town” with an attractive and active downtown and “tree lined streets” — is ideally stationed as a jumping-off point for adventure tourism throughout the region.

“McMinnville is unique in that it can function simultaneously as both a hub and destination within Warren County and the surrounding region for Adventure Tourism,” according to the plan, which notes that four major urban population centers home to an estimated 2.92 million people are within an easy two-hour drive of downtown McMinnville.

“Just as the natural beauty and the landscape of McMinnville-Warren County has created business and commerce that is still evident in the landscape today, more and more people, both residents and visitors, are coming to experience and interact with the natural beauty of the area and experience the small town main street feel of McMinnville,” the plan’s authors wrote.

McMinnville is, in fact, one of 35 nationally-accredited “Main Street” communities in Tennessee.

Mandy Eller, McMinnville-Warren County Chamber of Commerce president.

Like Mayor Haley, Chamber of Commerce President Mandy Eller is among those who believe it makes sense to market McMinnville and Warren County more energetically to visitors seeking physically active getaways and rewarding cultural experiences.

“That is an opportunity for the whole Upper Cumberland — maybe we can build it as a model and then they can do it across the whole region,” she said of the Adventure Tourism Plan blueprint.

Eller, who grew up the daughter of a nurseryman and then became the wife of one, said she’s always been engaged in the community. But she acknowledges there were times as a younger adult when she took some of the region’s beauty, history and outdoor recreation for granted. But once she had children of her own, Eller said she became determined to instill in them a sense of pride in their hometown and county. That in turn led her to discovering things about the area for herself that she never knew.

Her impression now is that she’s immeasurable fortunate to live and raise a family of her own in a land of unbounded allure, potential and promise.

“We are completely spoiled here, we really are,” Eller said.

, ,

Register Now for 2018 Guided Waterfall and Wildflower Tours

Press Release from the State of Tennessee, March 20, 2018:

NASHVILLE – Tennessee State Parks is offering vacation packages that take visitors on guided tours through some of the state’s most scenic waterfalls, swimming holes and wildflower trails.

Spring, summer and fall tours will take participants through Tennessee’s Highland Rim and Cumberland Plateau, an area nationally-known for its cascades, gorges, rock houses and waterfalls. Tours include folklore and history shared by State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath and Park Ranger Cara Alexander, educational and interpretive programs unique to each location, meals and transportation.

Specific tours offered in 2018 are:

  • Waterfalls & Wildflowers Photography Workshop & Tour: April 13-15; locations include Cumberland Mountain State Park, Ozone Falls, Piney Falls and the Head of the Sequatchie; led by published Nature Photographer Byron Jorjorian.
  • Spring Waterfall Tour: April 27-29; locations include Cumberland Mountain State Park, Fall Creek Falls State Park, Ozone Falls, Piney Falls and Lost Creek Falls.
  • Summer Swimming Hole Tour: July 16-18; locations include Edgar Evins State Park, Rock Island State Park, South Cumberland State Park and Cummins Falls State Park.
  • October Waterfall Tour: October 1-3; locations include Cumberland Mountain State Park, Burgess Falls State Park, Colditz Cove State Natural Area, Cummins Falls State Park, Frozen Head State Park and Rock Island State Park.
  • November Waterfall Tour: Nov. 14-16; locations include Cumberland Mountain State Park, Fall Creek Falls State Park, Ozone Falls, Piney Falls and Lost Creek Falls.

All tours are $350/person and include meals, taxes, gratuities, interpretive programming and transportation. Onsite lodging, including camping or cabins, is available at an additional cost.

Complete itineraries and registration information can be found at https://tnstateparks.com/about/tennessee-state-parks-vacation-packages.

,

Set a Course for State Parks This Spring

Multitude of things to do at premier Middle TN recreation spots

OK, so it’s obviously premature to be proclaiming “Spring is in the Air”  at this point.

But before winter even starts to wane it isn’t too early to start marking your calendar to visit state parks around the Highland Rim and Cumberland Plateau region. As usual, they’re offering an abundance of organized outings and seasonal event celebrations in March and April, all of which are aimed especially at helping visitors shed melancholy and embrace the rebirth of warmth and color.

There’s no better way to put the bloom on your appreciation of nature’s wondrous mannerisms than wandering the springtime woods or taking placid walks along waters both peaceful and roiling with end-of-winter runoff.

Below is a partial list of scheduled park happenings that are certain to help lighten grey moods, get the blood pumping and invite new life and vibrancy back into your view of the world.

Edgar Evins State Park
1630 Edgar Evins State Park Road
Silver Point, TN
931-858-2115

March 3: Weed Wrangle. Join rangers and othe park volunteers as they hunt down and remove invasive plants. Meet at the Millennium Trail parking area at 9:00 AM and work till around noon. Bring gloves, wear appropriate clothes and shoes, and be prepared to get dirty and have fun!

March 10: Come out and watch WILDFLOWERS OF THE HIGHLAND RIM emerging from winter’s icy grip! Meet at the Park Office, 2pm.

Brad Halfacre, a ranger at Edgar Evins State Park, shows off a chunk of chestnut wood that’s on display at the interpretive center.

March 17: Join Friends of Edgar Evins State Park for the Annual Waterfall Tour Fundraiser.

March 17: Take a ranger-led walk on the Highland Rim Nature Trail in search of Wildflower Blooms. Hike starts at 10am — meet at park office.

Mar. 24: Friends of Edgar Evins State Park Spring Hike

March 31: Birds, Blooms & Butterflies Hike, 2pm. Meet at Millennium Trailhead parking area for two-and-a-half mile guided loop trek. Don’t forget your camera!

March. 31: Third Annual Easter Eggstravaganza Easter Egg Hunt 2pm at the main campground.

March 8: More Birds, Blooms and Butterflies! Guided two-mile hike departs from park office at 9am.

April 14: Annual Celebration of Spring – All day fun for the whole family.

Fall Creek Falls
2009 Village Camp Road
Spencer, TN
423-881-5298

March 3: Weed Wrangle, starts at 9 am and lasts until 1pm. Join staff and volunteers at the Nature Center to work on eradicating pesky weeds from the lovely landscape of Tennessee’s premier state park.

March 3: FCF Thaw 15k Run & Weekend Excursion. Email Roger Gall (rsgl@cafes.net) for details.

March 16-18: Get cosmic under the Cumberland Plateau’s night sky at the Spring Star Party. Email Lloyd Watkins (watkinslk@comcast.net) for meet-up time & place.

March 31: Easter Egg Hunt in the Village Area. 10:00 am.

April 7-8: 37th Annual Fall Creek Falls Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. Trees budding, flowers blooming, delightful hues and pastel colors bursting forth. Email Matt Brown (matthew.brown@tn.gov) for full schedule of guided hikes and wildflower related programs.

Standings Stone State Park
1674 Standing Stone Park Hwy.
Hilham, TN
931-823-6347

March 24: Spring Hike 2018: Pick up your daypack and lace up your boots, SSSP is thick with virgin woods, vivid wildflowers and fantastic waterside views. 10 a.m. Ranger Sarah Geeslin is organizing the event. Email her at sarah.geeslin@tn.gov.

March 31: Easter Egg Hunt, 2 pm. Hunt located below the dam, includes age appropriate sections: 4 and under, 5-8 & 9-12. The Bunny won’t wait, so don’t be late!

April 13-14: 15th Annual Nature Rally. Check park’s webpage or email sarah.geeslin@tn.gov as date approaches for detailed list of events.

Rock Island State Park:
82 Beach Road Rock Island, TN
931-686-2471

Twin Falls at Rock Island State Park

March 3: Weed Wrangle starts at 10 am. Come on out and help remove exotic invasive plants to create a better habitat for native Tennessee varieties!

March 24: Spring Hike 2018 begins at 10am. Walk along the Downstream Trail watching for waterfalls and wildflowers — no better way to celebrate the start of spring!

April 14: Rock and Row Triathlon, 8am. Five kilometers of paddling, five kilometers of running (both road and trail), five kilometers of biking on park roads. Contact RISP office to register.

Cumberland Mountain State Park
24 Office Drive
Crossville, TN
931-484-6138

March 3: Weed Wrangle, 9am-3pm. Come be part of the invasive-plant removal crew at the original Civilian Conservation Corps picnic area built at the park. Email monica.johnson@tn.gov for more info.

March 24: Spring Trek, 10am. Two-mile easy loop, guided by park staff who can speak to the natural, cultural and historical treasures you’ll encounter.

April 13-15: Waterfalls and Wildflowers Photography Workshop. Photographers of all experience levels welcome! You’ll learn all the necessary skills to to capture and create stunning waterfall and wildflower images. Email cassie.rapert@tn.gov to inquire about details, registration and fees.

April 27-29: April Waterfall Tour. Join State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath and Ranger Cara Alexander on a three-day excursion to some of the realm’s most beautiful cascades, cataracts and free-falling stream flows. Email cassie.rapert@tn.gov for more info or to register.

State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath

April 28: 8th Annual Wildflower Photography Workshop, 9am. Ranger Monica Johnson (monica.johnson@tn.gov) and photographer Anthony Ladd will lead a fantastical journey through the forest of Cumberland Mountain State Park in search of picturesque vistas and perfect wildflower photo ops. In addition to marvelous hiking, workshop includes photography tips, innovative ways of capturing dramatic natural images, wildflower identification.

April 28: Homestead Hammer Adventure Triathlon, 8am. 2-mile trail run, 1-mile mile kayak, 1.5 mile mountain bike course. Email Mark Houston (mark.houston@tn.gov) for more info.

Burgess Falls State Park
4000 Burgess Falls Drive
Sparta, TN
931-432-5312

March 3: Weed Wrangle, 9am. Staff and volunteers will join forces to remove non-native plants. The four-hour project will involve hiking to remote areas so bring lunch, water and sturdy shoes! Email Bill.Summers@tn.gov for more info.

South Cumberland State Park
11745 US 41
Monteagle, TN
931-924-2980

March 3: Backcountry Weed Wrangle, 9am. Help free native flora from the grip of privet and other invasive plant species deep in the Tennessee outback! Meet at Stone Door Ranger Station and travel by park vehicle to the project area. Register with james.holland@tn.gov.

Great Stone Door Overlook

March 28: Savage Gulf Marathon. Start & finish at Stone Door Ranger Station. Not for the faint of heart, lungs or legs! Race features 26.2 miles of brutal terrain. Participation limited to first 100 registrations. Email Ray.Cutcher@tn.gov.

March 31: Trailblazing, 9am. Come help create a brand new loop trail at Sherwood Forest, a brand new addition to South Cumberland State Park. Email Ranger Jason Reynolds (jason.reynolds@tn.gov) for exact meet-up location.

April 13-16: Trails and Trilliums. A three-day festival featuring guided hikes on the South Cumberland’s most scenic trails. Also, programs, workshops and art displays. Proceeds benefit Friends of the South Cumberland State Park. trailsandtrilliums.org

, ,

Savage Beauty Abides at South Cumberland

Picturesque panoramas easily accessible at Great Stone Door 

With more than 30,000 acres under its auspices, South Cumberland State Park isn’t merly Tennessee’s largest state natural area. It’s also as remote, rugged and optically grand a place as you are likely to find within a day’s drive.

Fortunately for people fortunate enough to find themselves visiting or living near Center Hill Lake, it’s in fact hardly more than a 90-minute hop.

Several State Parks in One

South Cumberland State Park is actually a cluster of scenic getaways. Consisting of 10 different natural-area tracts in Grundy, Franklin, Marion and Sequatchie Counties, it’s more like a small subsystem of state parks than a single large one.

“A popular destination for hikers and campers, nearly 100 miles of trails and 13 primitive campgrounds service the area,” the Friends of the South Cumberland State Park website reports. “In addition to hiking and camping, the park offers opportunities for picnicking, swimming, fishing, caving, visiting historic ruins, rock climbing and rappelling, viewing spectacular rock formations, wildlife and waterfalls.”

It’s a region full of history and natural wonder that many a Middle Tennessee outdoor enthusiast has never properly discovered or adequately explored.

Just a few of the popular destinations are places like Foster Falls, Denny Cove, Grundy State Forest, Grundy Lakes and Sewanee Natural Bridge.

The 12.5-mile Fiery Gizzard Trail features “cascading streams, numerous waterfalls, panoramic overlooks, extremely rocky gorges, gentle slopes and lush woodlands,” thus undoubtedly placing it, in Friends of SCSP’s estimation, among “the most diverse and beautiful in the state.” For that matter, it has been ranked among the best in the United States.

Named, as legend has it, by Davy Crockett after he bit into an overly hot mouthful of victuals while camped in the vicinity, the Fiery Gizzard trailhead is located about three miles from the South Cumberland Visitor Center outside the tourist-friendly mountain hamlet of Monteagle.

Stone-Cold Stunning

Nearest to I-40 and Center Hill Lake, and offering epically expansive rimrock vistas, is the primally untamed Savage Gulf Natural Area. It consists of a trio of 5-mile-long canyons cut ruthlessly over the aeons into the western edge of Cumberland Plateau. The yawning canyons — or “gulfs,” in the parlance of the gobsmacked Scots-Irish settlers who happened upon the realm — converge together into the Collins River Valley.

In the Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau” installment of  his popular series of outdoor guidebooks, prolific trail-trekker Johnny Molloy describes Savage Gulf’s thousands of wild acres as “an area of waterfalls, bluffs, human history, and all around beauty.”

The July 2000 issue of Backpacker magazine assessed Savage Gulf as “one of the last true wilderness areas left in the South.”

“If you like the rugged beauty of the Smoky Mountains but can do without the legions of car-driving windshield tourists who invade Great Smoky Mountains National Park, head for Savage Gulf Natural Area,” declared a writer for the magazine. He added, “The view from these cliffs rivals any you will find in the Smoky Mountains.”

Located just 20 miles southeast of McMinnville, Savage’s Gulf’s remarkable Great Stone Door is a masterwork of patient geological artistry.

Stone Door is just an hour’s drive from Smithville, or a pleasurably scenic hour and a half from Cookeville. It gets its name from a narrow, deep, steep and traversable crack in the sheer outcrops overlooking a Collins headwater tributary.

Described in the pages of Backpacker magazine as “truly breathtaking,” the Great Stone Door overlook boasts what veteran state park naturalist Randy Hedgepath proclaims is “the best view anywhere in the state of Tennessee.”

Unlike some of the hikes in Savage Gulf, getting to the Stone Door overlook doesn’t necessarily require a heroic demonstration of physical stamina. It’s a fairly flat and mild mile-long stroll from the ranger station parking lot.

The magnificent immensity of the view one encounters immediately upon emerging from the woods-enveloped Stone Door trail onto the wide-open cliff-top overlooks can be a little disorienting. Coming up all at once against so much soaring, multi-directional vastness can literally result in not knowing which way to turn next. Best, though, to avoid swiveling and whirling about uncontrollably, as that could lead to a steep fall in the event one’s equilibrium is compromised by vertigo near a high ledge.

Another impressive canyon-viewing vantage along the trail, though not quite so dizzying, is Laurel Gulf Overlook. At just of a quarter mile from the ranger station, and situated on a wooden deck at the end of a paved walkway, it is comfortably accessible to wheelchairs.

Beyond Laurel Gulf Overlook in the direction of Stone Door, the footpath transforms fetchingly into a tramped-and-trodden mulch of forest-floor soil and fine, boot-milled sandstone.

Hikers possessing of hardy constitutions can descend from the Stone Door into the chasm floor and explore a network of demanding but highly rewarding trails. If unsullied solitude is what you seek, this may be your best option. Although owing to the area’s size and general seclusion, it is not entirely uncommon to find yourself agreeably alone along the rim trails and overlooks, particularly on weekdays.

MTSU professor Carroll Van West, Tennessee’s state historian, has written that the Savage Gulf region “is perhaps the most isolated place in the state.”

“Over one hundred years ago, the rugged landscape of Grundy County attracted entrepreneurs who wanted to exploit the minerals underground and the timber on top, as well as entrepreneurs who wanted a respite from their industrialized towns and cities to breath fresh mountain air and enjoy the plateau’s breathtaking scenery,” West wrote in his “Tennessee’s Historic Landscapes: A Traveler’s Guide,” a 1995 survey of noteworthy Volunteer State settlements, communities and architecture.

Periodic Pruning

Savage Gulf’s 800-feet-deep ravines and shelter some of Tennessee’s most pristine stands of old-growth timber outside of Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

But even though the indigenous hemlock and various native hardwoods are now protected from commercial logging, Mother Nature employs clear-cutting techniques of her own on occasion. Massive rockslides will, from time to time, crumble violently away from the bluff faces. The downhill-hurtling boulders often sheer away considerable swaths of virgin forest before coming to rest far below.

In his 1999 book,“The Historic Cumberland Plateau: An Explorer’s Guide,” Russ Manning described how the precipitous crags are prone to intermittent paroxysms of savage remodeling.

“The Savage Gulf forest is kept relatively young by the unstable walls of the canyon which periodically send an avalanche of boulders tumbling into the gorge, cutting down the trees as efficiently as a giant scythe,” wrote Manning. “Even so, the forest is impressive.”

Ranger Hedgepath said he’s witnessed the cataclysmic results firsthand. One morning he said he was gazing out from a rim overlook when he observed what appeared to be a sizable “gash” in the forest across the canyon. “It looked like a big piece of the mountain had disappeared,” he said.

Certain it hadn’t been there the day before, Hedgepath hiked in to investigate, whereupon he discovered that, indeed, “part of the bluff had broken off and fallen down.

“That’s what caused the big gash. Just one morning, there it was,” Hedgepath said. “It happened during the night, I guess.”

For bluff buffs who love everything about Savage Gulf, the fact that it’s still a work in progress just adds to the mystique and majesty of the place.

“The canyons are getting deeper and wider all the time,” said Hedgepath.

, ,

Dilapidated Campground at Hurricane Bridge Gets Breath of Life

PRESS RELEASE from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District, Sept. 30, 2017:

Center Hill Lake volunteers convert campground into tobacco-free trail

By Park Ranger Sarah Peace

Lancaster, Tenn. (Sept. 30, 2017) – About 30 volunteers converted the former Hurricane Bridge Campground today into the new “The Old 56 Trail” at Center Hill Lake in support of National Public Lands Day.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District coordinated with the DeKalb County Health Department on the development of the trail, and garnered additional support from Tennessee Tech University’s Fisheries Society, DeKalb County High School, and other volunteers and partnerships.

The volunteers installed trail signage, distance markers, and benches. Small brush and overgrowth were taken out that revealed scenic views. Parking spaces were created at the entrance of the trail and debris and trash from years of runoff from State Route 56 were removed.

Prior to the National Public Lands Day event, decades of extensive overgrowth and debris were cleared thanks to a grant from the DeKalb County Health Department.

“The project (The Old 56 Trail) is the result of the Tennessee Department of Health Rural Access to Health and Healthy Active Built Environments grant recently awarded to DeKalb County.” explained DeKalb County Mayor Tim Stribling during his opening remarks.

The grant focused on improving health outcomes by enhancing access to free physical activity, and the county looked for areas that meets these qualifications.

A new trail at the Hurricane Bridge Recreation Area met these qualifications, and a portion of the grant helped clear the decades of overgrowth and debris, the first step to converting the campground into a paved trail.

In addition to overgrowth removal, the DeKalb County Health Government donated two new benches. The reason? The new trail at Hurricane Bridge is also the Corps’ first tobacco free area on Center Hill Lake, made possible by additional funding though a tobacco free grant.

National Public Lands Day served as the official opening of the trail, and the announcement of the trail name, “The Old 56 Trail,” voted on by the public via a Facebook contest, “Name that Trail.”
“This trail is made by the community, for the community,” said Park Ranger John Malone, lead coordinator of Center Hill Lake’s National Public Lands Day activity. “Volunteers and community members can take pride in knowing that the trail and its name would not have been possible without them.”

The 25 sites at Hurricane Bridge Campground closed nearly 30 years ago, with just the picnic areas and two launching ramps remaining. Since that time the campground became an equipment storage area, and fell into disrepair, leaving only a slight glimpse of what was once there. Now all visitors, new and old have a trail they can use for walking, bicycling, or simply to relax and enjoy the outdoors, free of charge. They also have an outdoor area that they do not have to worry about cigarette butts, and other tobacco products. This trail is proof that through partnerships and the hard work of volunteers, great things can happen.

National Public Lands Day began in 1994, focusing on education and partnerships to care for the nation’s natural splendors. In 2016 NPLD volunteers saved taxpayers an estimated $18 million though volunteer services to improve public lands across the country. For more information on National Public Lands Day, visit: https://www.neefusa.org/public-lands-day.

(For more information about the US Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District, visit the district’s website at http://www.lrn.usace.army.mil/, on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/nashvillecorps, and http://www.facebook.com/centerhilllake, and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nashvillecorps.)

, ,

Roll into Standing Stone for Marble Madness

Standing Stone’s ‘Rolley Hole’ Tournament Celebrating 35th Anniversary

It’s something of a well-worn cliche to label a secluded place of natural beauty a “hidden gem.” But in the case of Standing Stone State Park, the description fits perfectly.

Located deep in the steep rises and ridges of the Highland Rim, the park is set covertly against the Cumberland Plateau amidst a maze of cryptic hills south of Dale Hollow Lake, about 10 miles northwest of Livingston.

Standing Stone is tucked well off and away from paths typically beaten by travelers and tourists exploring the Volunteer State’s numberless destinations for scenic eye-appeal. The 855-acre park in Overton County is also surrounded by more than 8,000 acres of state forest. Its rolling countryside is lavishly adorned with rugged woods and resplendent waterside scenery.

Opportunities for observing thriving wildlife populations — deer, turkey, fox, raccoons, bobcat, waterfowl, hawks, owls and songbirds — are commonplace, often tranquilly intersperse among areas frequented by crowds of human visitors.

“It’s most definitely not a place where you get tired of working,” said Shawn Hughes, a ranger at Standing Stone who grew up in the area. “It’s gorgeous in whatever season you are in, and it always offers something for everyone.”

Wildflower blooms are immense, and Standing Stone offers particularly spellbinding sprays and displays along contemplative timberland footpaths. “On our lake trails, the abundance of the shooting-star wildflowers is one of the highlights,” said Hughes. “And you don’t have to go very far — you might just go down one trail a little ways and see 70 or 80 specimens in bloom.”

Standing Stone’s colors and bold contours draw visitors throughout the year, but it’s late summer that brings about one of the most distinctive attractions for which Standing Stone is known, beyond just the grand landscape. The most highly anticipated happening the park has annually offered for the past three and a half decades is a crown-jewel of a marble tournament.

On Saturday, Standing Stone will celebrate the 35th anniversary of the National Rolley Hole Marbles Championship, one of the the most prominent and history-laden events of its kind in the United States — perhaps even the world.

Many books and articles have been written about the Rolley Hole tournament over the years — and the ageless sport of marble-shooting in general along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. From Sports Illustrated to Southern Living to the Smithsonian Institution, Standing Stone’s Rolley Hole tourney has been spotlighted numerous times over the years on national television news and sports programs. It even made an appearance in Charles M. Schulz’s famed “Peanuts” comic strip.

“The sport of rolley hole requires technical shooting skiffs as well as thoughtful strategy. It shares features in common with golf, pool, and croquet,” wrote renown Tennessee folklorist Robert Fulcher. “A centuries-old phenomenon, numerous variants of rolley hole have been documented worldwide. Shakespeare mentioned the game of Cherry Pit, which involved rolling a marble into a hole.”

Ranger Hughes is the chief organizer for the annual Rolley Hole tournament. Getting to know the game means gaining greater appreciation for regional culture and history, he said.

“The whole marble culture thing is so neat and cool,” said Hughes. “It really is deeper than what it looks at first glance, and the more you are around it and learn about it the greater it is.”

The game “seems super simple but the depth and complexity and strategy is really amazing,” he said.

More than even that, the Rolley Hole Championship and the accompanying festivities throughout the day — live music, food, marble-making, trading and selling — brings together the past and connects it with the future.

“You see a lot of older folks sort of get to step back in time and relive some of their youth,” said Hughes. “Or an older generation teaching a younger generation. Seeing a grandfather with his grandkids, teaching them to play marbles — I don’t know how much better it can get than that.”

In addition to “a day full of marble fun,” the 35th Rolley Hole event will include 7 hours of live bluegrass, blues, and old-time music by bands and artists like Uncle Shuffelo & His Haint Hollow Hootenanny, the Rockdale Ridgerunners, Avery Trace, Lonesome County Line and Kentucky Just Us, Trenton Caruthers, Mike DeFosche, Conner Vlietstra and a special set by Robert Eskew.

Also planned is a tribute to the music of the late Robert “Bud” Garrett, a legendary local blues musician and marble maker.

The festival begins at 8 a.m. and admission is free. For more information about the festival and Standing Stone State Park, visit http://tnstateparks.com/parks/about/standing-stone or call 931-823- 6347.

, , , ,

Edgar Evins Manager’s Mission: Promote Park’s Appeal

Scenic Center Hill Lake recreation preserve something of an undiscovered treasure

When Kenny Gragg took over the top managerial post at Edgar Evins State Park last winter, it was something of a homecoming for him.

As a kid growing up in Cookeville, Gragg would often visit the 6,000 acre nature preserve and recreation destination overlooking Center Hill Lake on fun-seeking outings with friends or camp-retreats with his church group.

But it wasn’t until after he graduated with a degree in wildlife management from Tennessee Tech and worked at other parks that he said he really came to appreciate what Edgar Evins has to offer.

Kenny Gragg, managing ranger at Edgar Evins State Park

“Edgar Evins is so unique and diverse with flora and fauna. It’s nothing to see all kinds of wildlife just walking a quarter mile down one of our trails,” Gragg said. “Of all the state parks, it has some of the most diverse wildlife in the state. In my entire career I’d never seen a bobcat until I came here.”

He added, “There’s always the possibility that a bear could migrate in and show up, although I haven’t seen one, but I would never rule it out.”

Gragg, who worked as the managing ranger at Tims Ford in Franklin County before taking over the chief administrator slot at Edgar Evins, said he’s a deeply committed advocate of the Tennessee outdoors in general.

“You won’t find a bigger fan of the state of Tennessee than me,” he said. “I worked in Wyoming for a summer and I loved it out there. I even thought it might be great to move there. But when I came back, I fell back in love with Tennessee and now I never want to leave again.”

But Gragg said he was all the same a little stunned when he showed back up at Edgar Evins last winter to start his current job. It was a particularly nice day in February, the sunlight gleaming on the cliffs over the lake. A heartfelt appreciation was stirred in him for the beauty and distinctness the park’s ridges, slopes and crags.

Observation tower overlooking Center Hill Dam at Edgar Evins State Park

“One of the first things I really noticed here after coming back from Tims Ford was the hills,” he said. “It’s hilly at Tims Ford, of course, but not like it’s hilly here. This side of the Cumberland Plateau, the Highland Rim, you really just can’t beat it — I love being back in these hills.”

“Just driving on the backroads around here — like Lancaster Highway down below the dam — I’m not sure where you find a more beautiful stretch of highway in the country than that,” Gragg said.

One of Gragg’s priorities is boosting the “business side” of the government-run park by enticing more people to come to appreciate its appeal. He said he wants to do more to promote the park and “get it on the map.”

“It is amazing how little people know about the park and all that it has to offer,” he said.“You can drive to Smithville and find people who don’t even realize there is a state park over here.”

He believes a key to success in that regard is to “drive up the overnight visitation.”

“To do that we have got to develop more recreational opportunities,” Gragg said.

One of his long-range ambitions is to work with Middle Tennessee and Upper Cumberland mountain biking enthusiasts to design and build riding trails around the park. Designated backcountry biking paths would wonderfully complement the area’s hiking trails and vast capacity for paddling, fishing and boating, he said.

“For visitors to be able to go kayaking one day and then go mountain biking the next would be fantastic,” said Gragg.

For a list of upcoming events at Edgar Evins State Park, go here.

, ,

Something Special About Small-Stream Smallies

Big lakes and large rivers aren’t the only habitat for brawny bronzebacks

Anglers are notoriously tight-lipped about where they go to rip fish lips. And that’s especially true among those serious about stalking skinny waters in search of fat bass.

But one of the great things about Middle Tennessee and the Upper Cumberland is that opportunities abound around here for escaping the mechanized weekend multitudes by sequestering yourself on backwoods bodies of moving water. There’s no shortage of covert creeks, secluded streams and secret side-channels that house hidden lairs holding lunker smallmouths.

Fervent fly fishermen like Sawyer Campbell are, of course, forever in thrall to the thrill of landing a big wily trout on an isolated run of fast-flowing river. Campbell, a Tennessee Tech grad, is Outdoor Experience of Cookeville’s floor manager and in-house fly shop tutor. But when he wants to steer clear of the Caney Fork’s flailing fleets of summer pleasure-floaters — or if an overnight excursion to East Tennessee’s South Holston River isn’t feasible — he likes to trek out to undisclosed stretches of tributaries feeding the Cumberland River in search of the copper-tinted kings of lower-elevation creeks and streams.

“It really doesn’t get much better than this,” Campbell remarks as he admires yet another plump, vermillion-eyed smallie he’s wrestled to submission on his 6-weight fly rod somewhere deep in the Roaring River watershed.

Creek-bass angling in the Upper Cumberland offers opportunities to connect with fish both in numbers and for size. That’s a pretty seductive win-win proposition for any fanatical sport fisherman, says Campbell, who’s always game to gab about fly-angling pursuits with customers browsing in the store. One of his specialty topics is discussing tips and tactics with trout anglers interested in crossing over into the realm of bass-catching.

Always Ready to Rumble

Anybody who’s ever caught a smallmouth will tell you they’re among the fightingest fish, pound for pound, of any inland North American warmer-water species. In moving currents, the initial hookup and subsequent thrashing fracas is especially vigorous.

“If you’ve caught smallmouth on lakes before, then you will understand,” said JG Auman of Mt. Juliet-based Tennessee Moving Waters Guide Service (tnmovingwaters.com). “I’d say these stream fish are on average twice as strong as a reservoir smallmouth.”

Auman and his business partner, Nick Adams, guide almost exclusively in Middle Tennessee on, as their name denotes, moving waters. One of their sought-after talents is putting customers — typically using traditional spinning rods — on secret holes in unfrequented streams that support large smallmouth.

When Auman and Adams head out for a day on the water, they ask clients if they’re looking to catch lots of fish, or just interested in targeting the big ones. If it’s the later, wielding a rod and line with some heft is imperative.

Big Fish Require Bigger Tackle

Battling a bruising five-pound smallmouth in swift current is probably a losing proposition with light gear and tackle, Auman said.

JG Auman of TN Moving Waters

“We do tend to use heavier tackle than what people often associate with stream fishing, because we often try and target trophy fish,” he said. “They will either break the rod off or break off the line when they pull it up under a tree or rock.”

Auman, who also works as an aquatic biologist for the Nashville Zoo, said a creek smallmouth that’s 20 inches long is probably 15-20 years old. “It knows every rock, every tree, every branch in its home,” he said. “And when you hook it, those are the places it’s going. You are not going to be able to stop them if you’re tackle is too light — you just aren’t going to keep them out of the cover. We learned that from experience long ago.”

In 2015 Adams and Auman were featured on Chad Hoover’s popular Youtube channel, KayakBassinTV. Hoover, who also lives in Middle Tennessee, is usually partial to chasing largemouth. But in the episode with the TMW crew, he acknowledged there’s little not to love about paddling for smallmouth on the region’s scenic rivers and creeks.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t done as much (smallmouth fishing) for the show — primarily, because I’m selfish,” Hoover said. “I really like to keep these smallmouth places to myself.”

Destinations Classified 

Auman said he gets a fair number of people calling him up not so much looking to book an outing, but just “fishing for stream names.” But he’s a devoted practitioner of the fisherman’s code of secrecy, especially on the matter of small-stream smallmouth fishing.

Holes that hold big fish will fizzle in a hurry if they get publicized, he said.

Not only doesn’t Moving Waters give out stream names, but some of their highly classified hotspots are designated for tourists only. “If I have clients that are local, I take them to streams that are somewhat known,” he said. “Then I have others that I fish only with out-of-town clients, because I know they aren’t going to tell people or come back later. In this day and age of social media, all it takes is one person to get on a Facebook page that has 5,000 members and start giving out creek names, and it’s ruined.”

All the same, Auman encourages anglers to get out and explore for their own patches of highly productive moving bass waters. Most anybody can be successful if they just scout around and study some maps, he said.

“You want to find streams that flow directly into larger bodies of water — that’s the best way that I tell people to find good smallmouth streams,” he said. “If you can find a stream that is a direct tributary to the Cumberland River or the Caney Fork River, then those are the streams you are going to want to look for. You probably don’t want the streams that just feed into another little stream.”