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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 panorama views, 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.

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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.

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Windows of Recreation Opportunities

Officials hope new state natural area will attract more tourist dollars to region

The Window Cliffs Natural Area in Putnam County is now open for the business of public recreation.

State park officials, local politicians, conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts gathered for a commencement celebration and an inaugural round of guided hikes at the 275-acre scenic refuge on April 7.

The opening of the area was also scheduled to highlight and coincided with this year’s State Natural Areas Spring Celebration Week, which is used to raise public awareness about Tennessee’s 85 state-owned natural areas.

The state’s Natural Areas Program “seeks to include adequate representation of all natural communities that make up Tennessee’s natural landscape, and provide long-term protection for Tennessee’s rare, threatened and endangered plant and animal life,” according to the Department of Environment and Conservation.

“I can really think of no way to better honor this week than the opening of Window Cliffs State Natural Area,” Roger McCoy, director of TDEC’s Division of Natural Areas, told the crowd of 100 or so people gathered for the kickoff event. “This is a big deal.”

The area’s plant diversity and craggy beauty are sure to entice visitors to Window Cliffs, said McCoy. “We’ve got mature forests, the free-flowing Cane Creek, and an amazing geologic formation that really is like no other in the state.”

The Window Cliffs trailhead is located about seven miles south of Exit 280 on I-40, at 8400 Old Cane Creek Rd in Baxter. It’s also just a couple miles from Burgess Falls State Park. The Window Cliffs trail includes a total of 20 bridgeless stream crossings and some pretty steep climbs, so don’t expect to have dry feet or fresh legs by the end of the day.

Bill Summers, head ranger at Burgess Falls State Park and Window Cliffs State natural Area

“Burgess Falls offers a relative short, scenic hike, and Window Cliffs is a little bit more of a challenging hike, which will be more rewarding to some visitors,” said Bill Summers, the chief state park ranger in charge of both areas. “I truly believe that both will compliment each other in what they offer to the public, and what they protect for future generations.”

Brock Hill, deputy commissioner for the Tennessee Bureau of Parks, said Gov. Bill Haslam has sought to place a “special focus on rural economic development,” and the opening of Window Cliffs is aligned with that priority.

Like with the opening of Cummins Falls State Park north of Exit 280, the Haslam administration’s parks and recreation planners believe taking a “businesslike approach” to designating and promoting exciting new outdoor-activity destinations will enhance local economies.

“A lot of communities, particularly here in the Upper Cumberland, are still struggling in some ways,” said Hill. “What Tennessee state parks can bring to that is what is called ‘place-based economic development.’ When we have beautiful landscapes like we do here in the Upper Cumberland, we have been able to identify places that will add a lot in terms of value to local economic development with tourism and job growth, as well as an opportunity for healthy lifestyles.”

This is the 46th year of Tennessee’s Natural Areas Program,” and the 80th year of the state park system.

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Plan for Privatizing Fall Creek Falls Hotel Held Up

TDEC adding ‘amendment’ to ongoing RFP; Attorney general says process legal

Officials in the administration of Gov. Bill Haslam have postponed the deadline for private companies to submit proposals for operating a new $22 million hotel at Fall Creek Falls State Park.

The state Department of Environment and Conservation, which supervises state parks and natural areas in Tennessee, is planning to amend the “Request for Proposals” process that it launched last year, according to Eric Ward, a spokesman for the agency.

Prior to the delay announcement, March 2 was the scheduled deadline for companies to submit first-phase operational proposals for running the future restaurant and lodging facility, which would remain owned by the state.

The construction funding for the project has already been approved by the Tennessee General Assembly. The new facility is expected to replace the existing inn, built in the early 1970s, on the banks of scenic Fall Creek Lake.

Ward said “content revisions to the RFP” are currently in the works by TDEC planners.

In an emailed response to inquiries by Center Hill Sun, Ward said that because the companies bidding are engaged in a “competitive procurement process,” the specific nature of the changes will remain under wraps until their formal public release.

“The amended language will be available soon,” Ward wrote on Thursday.

Originally, the state was scheduled to finalize an agreement by July 1. The “concessionaire” firm that wins the contract would also take over management of the state park golf course in addition to the new inn facilities, expected to be completed in 2020.

A statement issued in January from TDEC asserted that the ultimate goal of the hospitality-service privatization initiative is to “more effectively steward taxpayer dollars by better protecting the park’s assets.”

The department also predicts an economic bounce to surrounding communities as a result.

The 26,000-acre park straddles Van Buren and Bledsoe Counties, both of which are considered “economically distressed” by the state and federal government. The same is true of White County to the north and parts of Warren County to the west.

TDEC officials say the existing hotel tends to run occupancy rates below 40 percent. The average hotel occupancy-rate nationally was 65.5 percent in 2016, according to industry estimates used by the Tennessee Hospitality and Tourism Association. In the Southeastern United States, the average was 61.4 percent and in Tennessee it was 64.5 percent.

“Increased occupancy and visitation with a new Inn will provide increased tax revenues for the local government and reliable employment for local citizens once the rebuild is complete,” according to the TDEC statement from earlier this year.

Unhappy Union Employees

The plan isn’t without its critics. Government employees at the hotel and restaurant worry they won’t enjoy the same benefits and job protections under a company intent on turning a profit.

Randy Stamps, executive director of of the Tennessee State Employees Association, would rather see the existing inn renovated and repaired and remain operated by public-payroll workers.

“Or, if poor structural conditions require we demolish and rebuild the inn, we should run it with state employees for a few years to raise occupancy rates and then reassess the value of a new inn running at its peak,” Stamps wrote in a January op-ed for The Tennessean.

An effort in 2015 by the Haslam administration to entice an outside company to run the inn failed to draw any interest because of the facility’s poor condition.

One bureaucratic peculiarity involving the project didn’t go unnoticed by opponents of a private company running the hotel.

Up until last week, the Haslam administration was seeking to approve plans for designing and constructing the new hotel itself, outside the customary review-and-oversight processes for publicly owned structures. Typically, that is supervised by the State Building Commission.

However, the administration has now apparently agreed to seek consent of some form for the new hotel design from the commission.

The Building Commission is made up of high-ranking officials from various arms of state government — including the speaker of the House, the secretary of state, the comptroller, the treasurer, the Department of Finance commissioner and the governor himself.

Senate Speaker Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, who also serves on the Building Commission in his capacity as lieutenant governor, told reporters at the Capitol last week the RFP holdup is “somewhere between a bump in the road and a roadblock.”

“It’s not a roadblock, but it’s not as insignificant as a bump in the road,” according to McNally.

The Tennessee attorney general’s office has released an opinion declaring that, provided the State Building Commission agrees to the terms, the state may “enter into agreements concerning state-owned or state-controlled lands and facilities, such as the proposed RFP and Concession Contract for the operation of Fall Creek Falls State Park.”

(Editor’s Note: This story was updated March 7.)