Hiking trips that we plan seem to synthesize themselves in the same manner. They begin from overhearing some small comment about a beautiful place near us, or by glancing over a map and a small name or geological feature quickly catches our attention. From this initial occurrence, the place begins manifesting itself in different ways, whether it be through photographs, conversations or even dreams. Before it can become forgotten, it begins to take over all thoughts and cannot be avoided. The only thing that can satisfy it's continuous begging is to purchase a map, do a little research, and set out to find this place. In some cases even after wondering through the lands we intended on conquering, it continues to call us back. This is when we know it is an extremely special place. This was exactly the case for our trip to the Big South Fork National River.
A few hours after leaving Nashville we found ourselves pulling onto an oil and chip road, overlooking the white capped Crab Orchard Mountains, that soon turned into a gravel pullout with a small kiosk. We got our day packs out of the trunk, put Milo's harness on, and started towards the trail. The ground was freshly coated in a light dusting of snow and the naked trees enameled in a thin layer of prismatic ice. Each step we took crushed the crystalized ground beneath our feet, although we took care not to step on any of the delicate frost flowers. It was evident that we were the only few creatures to pass through this area within the past few days. Within the first few hundred feet we had already realized that this day had already exceeded any dream or idea we had envisioned in the previous weeks of looking at maps. We inhaled the cool crisp air and felt alive.
The trail began to descend down a relatively steep trail before leveling out and paralleling a spring fed brook. All around us, small rock outcrops and cascades invited us to stop and observe their beauty. From within their porous sandstone, water seeped onto the moss and leaves below, encapsulating them with a thick shell. The brook gurgled alongside the trail widening into a stream and fanning out over smooth boulders. How many millennia had it taken for this stream to carve out the side of this plateau? How did we have this paradise completely to ourselves?
We took care not to fall on the thick sheet of ice that had accumulated on the trail under the edge of each rock house. Soon after we descended down a slick rock by holding on to a twenty foot piece of fixed rope and made our way through towering boulders. We rounded a bend in the trail, passed a small waterfall and were once again stopped in our tracks at the sight of a towering escarpment. This wall towered high above any rock face we had climbed in the Southeast, and it was clean. No bolts, no pin scars, no chalk, just pure Tennessee sandstone. Although we both enjoy climbing and even imagined routes up the beautiful face, we knew that some rocks were better left unscathed. That even with the most extreme care to leave a minimal impact, any influx of climbers would destroy the delicate micro ecosystems existing in each crack and crevice. Despite the cold air that nudged us to keep moving, we stood and stared towards the icicles hanging from the roof and followed them as they broke off and fell hundreds of feet to the ground.
It's so refreshing to have this slight element of danger. Although hiking is relatively safe, the possibility of having to dodge icicles, getting stung by a bee, twisting an ankle or being steps away from a thousand foot drop is a nice change of pace from the monotony of everyday life (unless you are a professional alligator wrestler, then most things are probably pretty bland). People sometimes forget that the most memorable moments are usually the times that involved an element of fear or discomfort. It is usually a lot easier to recall a hike that took place in a snow storm than it is a hike on a sunny day. As we walked, we thought about this. Despite a few moments when we thought Milo would slide down an icy slope into a creek in subfreezing weather, we were thankful to have such a unique winter day.
We ventured closer and closer towards the muddy Big South Fork of the Cumberland River at the base of the plateau. At the lowest point in the trail, we began heading due west. This was when the trail began to feel less like a trail and more like a jungle gym. The next two miles would consist of boulder hoping, ladder climbing, exploring rock houses, and navigating a winding trail that crossed back and forth over an icy creek. The people that designed and built this trail should be put into the trail builder's hall of fame. Waterfall after waterfall and boulder after boulder, we carefully danced up the trail holding Milo as we jumped across gaps too wide for him to muster up the courage to jump himself. Pulling ourselves up steep rocks by the frozen knobs of ice that had accumulated over them we could not keep the smiles off our faces. We felt like we were kids again. This trail had rekindled the feeling of childlike exploration, void of fear and absent of time. A giant rock house with a wooden ladder into its mouth called for us to come closer. Even Milo tried to climb the ladder out of curiosity of what existed inside the cave. In the middle of this wild expanse we decided to sit down for a few moments and eat a couple trail bars and split a Snickers.
Shortly after eating, we allowed no time to rest our legs out of the sheer excitement of what the trail had to bring. The trail led us along the ridge overlooking the valley we had just been walking through. We came to a waterfall tucked twenty feet inside of a small cave created by multiple house sized boulders. We hopped across stepping stones and climbed a few rocks to get to the other side of the falls. All of the sudden, Milo stopped in his tracks and started growling in a deep defensive growl. We looked ahead and saw something sitting on top of a mossy boulder. He would not stop growling in this uncharacteristic manner. Walking closer we realized it was just a sleeping bag in its stuff sack. Naturally, we called out to the owner of this bag. After five to ten minutes of searching and calling and no response, we started reeling through a list of possibilities for the strangely placed bag. Was someone setting up camp here and just left the bag to save weight while they wondered, had someone camped here the night before and simply forgotten to pack a large five pound sleeping bag, or had someone gotten lost or hurt on their way to filter water? After examining the bag closer, we realized that ice crystals had accumulated on the inside of the bag, leading us to believe that it had been there for at least a couple days. We did not want to leave someone stranded without their sleeping bag if they were still out hiking, but due to its condition and our proximity to the trailhead, we decided to pack it out to the trailhead.
For some reason this strange encounter left a strange taste in our mouths. Nevertheless, the trail called back our attention with a small bridge and a few more waterfalls. One bigger than any of the others we had seen all day, with a deep pool below it, which we added to our list of swimming holes for the upcoming summer. The trail climbed away from the creek and we said our goodbyes to one of the most magical places in Tennessee.
A mile or so later, we approached the trailhead and got cell signal again. We called the ranger station and made sure there were not any missing persons at the time. He confirmed no one had been reported lost and told us he would be by in a couple hours to pick up the bag. He grilled us about anything suspicious we saw on the trail, such as a smoldering campfire or empty beer cans, but we had not seen either. We got in the car and headed back towards Nashville, leaving behind a wonderland.
Just as our trips come together in a similar way, they usually end with silent reflection due to a lack of words to describe the joy that comes from a day spent outside exploring. Originally drawn to what looked liked the smallest trail on the map led us to what became one of our favorite places in Tennessee. A place that might not look like much topographically can become so much more once you actually are surrounded by the boulders, the rivers, and the unique flora and fauna that the area has to offer. As the sun lowered in the sky, our day came to a very happy end.
For more photos of our trip to Big South Fork, give us a follow on instagram at @ourtrailingthought.