Wednesday, August 12, 2015

2002 Backpacking Tennessee's Cherokee National Forest

The Cherokee National Forest is Tennessee's only national forest and encompasses 650,000 acres, stretching from Chattanooga to Bristol. It has two sections -- north and south -- which are separated by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. About 10% of the forest is designated wilderness in 7 small segments: the adjoining Joyce Kilmer-Sliprock (3881 acres) and Citco Creek (15,891 acres); Gee Creek (2493 acres); Bald River Gorge (3887 acres); Big Laurel Branch (6251 acres); Pond Mountain (6665 acres); Sampson Mountain (8319 acres).

The forest has over 105 hiking trails covering over 715 miles, including two National Recreation Trails (The John Muir and Warrior's Passage) and over 150 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Following the multi-use doctrine, there are trails in the forest designated for hiking, mountain biking, motorcycling, or horseback, as well as designated areas for ORV/4WD use.

The forest is home to over 70 species of mammals and 262 species of birds. Fishing in the lakes and rivers is said to be exceptional, including trout (rainbow, brook, and brown) as well as bass, bluegill, and crappie.

The Cherokee National Forest hosted the 1996 Olympic Slalom Canoe and Kayak events on the Ocoee River. Whitewater canoeing, kayaking, and tubing are also available on nine whitewater rivers, including the Hiwassee State Scenic River, the Nolichucky, and and French Broad River.

The Coker Creek Scenic Area is a three mile long, 375 acre protected area in the Cherokee National Forest. The trail is well marked and in places is fairly rugged, occasionally at creek level and elsewhere climbing well above the creek to cross ridges. Our tent is barely visible in the trees on the left shore of Coker Creek, about a quarter mile above its confluence with the Hiwassee River. This was a magnificent area to camp and we had the place to ourselves, but be forewarned: Forest Service Road 22 ends here which means people can drive to this location and camp here. The photo is taken from the bridge which carries the John Muir Trail across the creek. 

Coker Creek Scenic Area is famous for its series of five or more falls, ranging from a few feet in height to 40 feet tall, which cascade down the canyon for a quarter mile or so.

The photo below shows the Hiwassee River with Coker Creek entering from the left. Boulder hopping allows you to scamper to a sandy beach just below the confluence, following a steep, tricky climb down a side trail from the John Muir Trail several hundred feet above the river level. The Hiwassee gets its name from the Cherokee word "ayuwasi" which means "savanna" or "meadow at the foot of the hills."

I pause to appreciate the views of the Hiwassee. John Muir, in preparation for his walk across South America, did a 1000 mile "warmup hike" from Kentucky to Florida in 1867. His trek took him along the Hiwassee River which he called "a most impressive mountain river with its surface broken to a thousand sparkling gems, and its forest walls vine draped and flowery as Eden."

Len on the Unicoi Mountain Trail which ascends for four miles on the ridge between Coker Creek and the Hiwassee River. Note the early stages of the spring greening-up high on the mountain as compared to the already lush green in the valley of the evergreens prolific along the banks and the presence of the early-greening mountain laurels. I heard a crashing in the underbrush far down slope, followed by a gunshot, reminding me that we were in the forest during the five week spring turkey hunting season. The 19 mile long John Muir Trail meets the Coker Creek and Unicoi Mountain Trails in this area, providing three fine trails to explore in one locale, as well as the side trail down to the river.

Wilderness Trails of Tennessee's Cherokee National Forest, written by the Harvey Broome Group of the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1992, 323

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