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Week 5: Middle Creek Loop is one of Big South Fork’s best hikes

Editor’s Note: This story is part of the #40MileChallenge

Step for step, there is more rock to explore along the Middle Creek Nature Loop than any other trail in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.

Rock crevices, rock shelters and tiny caves await exploration along the 3.5-mile loop trail, making it a favorite for hikers young and old alike.

Older hikers will appreciate the fact that the Middle Creek Nature Loop is an easy hike. In fact, you won’t find too many trails in the Big South Fork that are any easier, despite its moderate length. 

Younger hikers (children) love Middle Creek Loop because there’s so much to explore along the route, from rocks that can be climbed to rock shelters that can be explored to dripping water that can be splashed in. 

Water seeps along Middle Creek Loop pretty much every day of the year, but it’s especially impressive after a recent rainfall, when the wet-weather waterfalls are flowing | Ben Garrett/IH

That’s the other thing about Middle Creek, besides all the rock: there is lots of seeping water along the route. Despite what its name might suggest, there are no major streams along the trail. But water seeps from many of the rocks nearly year-round — from a drip or a trickle during drier weather to multiple waterfalls during wet weather. 

In fact, all the falling water makes Middle Creek an especially alluring hike during periods of prolonged sub-freezing weather in the winter, when giant ice formations form along the rock ledges. But it’s a hike that is perfect for just about any season — including spring, the one we’re in now.

Middle Creek Loop is best hiked in a clockwise direction by turning left near the trailhead | Ben Garrett/IH

An easy start: Middle Creek Nature Loop begins and ends at the Middle Creek Trailhead on Divide Road, a short distance off S.R. 154 near Pickett State Park. It is about a 30-minute drive from Oneida to the trailhead. The trailhead is the first one after turning from the highway onto the gravel road, and the trail is best hiked in a clockwise direction by turning left just after leaving the parking lot.

From the trailhead, the trail parallels Divide Road for a ways, traveling through a mixed hardwood forest that typifies that plateau areas of the Big South Fork. After a little more than eight-tenths of a mile of level walking, the trail turns and descends slightly from the top of the bluffs to below the bluffs, and that’s when the hike starts to get fun.

Young hikers enjoy Middle Creek Loop because there are lots of interesting places to explore along the route | Ben Garrett/IH

Exploring the rock: Once the trail has dipped down the hill and the connector trail to Slave Falls has branched off, Middle Creek Nature Loop takes on an entirely different personality. For the next 1.5 miles, you’ll pass by and through numerous rock shelters, each seemingly more magnificent than the one before it. 

Some of the rock shelters along Middle Creek Loop seem to have their own miniature ecosystem | Ben Garrett/IH

Rare species: Many of the rock shelters found along the Middle Creek Loop seem to have their own miniature ecosystem. Even during the early spring months, before the green-up has finished, lush, green growth can be found in the damp environments beneath the rock ledges. Rhododendron grows in abundance beneath several of the large rock walls. There are also rare plants, like Lucy Braun’s snakeroot, a flowering plant of the aster family that isn’t found anywhere on earth besides the Cumberland Plateau. One of the largest rock shelters along the path includes a wooden fence to prevent hikers from unknowingly trampling the endangered plant. The snakeroot is only known to grow in between 40 and 50 places along the northern plateau in Tennessee and Kentucky. In another couple of months, glow worms can be found in some of the rock shelters along the trail.

A short climb: A little more than halfway through the hike, the trail leads up a set of natural steps through a rock jumble. This short jaunt is the only “challenging” part of the hike, though that term is used loosely here. It’s really not much of a challenge. 

The road out: For about half a mile, the rock shelters become fewer and further between, but the trail remains below the top of the plateau. At about 2.75 miles, however, the trail climbs back to the plateau top and adjoins an old road trace that leads back to the trailhead. 

Directions: From Oneida, take S.R. 297 west through the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. At the highway’s terminus near Sharp’s Place, turn right onto S.R. 154 towards Pickett State Park. After traveling north for two miles, turn right onto Divide Road. If you reach the entrance to Pickett State Park, you’ve gone too far. The trailhead will be on the right, eight-tenths of a mile from the main highway.

Look for a tree along the route with a “gnome door” at its base. Snap a photo and post it on social media with the #40MileChallenge hashtag | Ben Garrett/IH

Look For: Midway through the hike, you’ll come upon a small tree on the left side of the trail that has a nearly symmetrically perfect opening at its base — almost like a gnome’s door. Bonus: You won’t find Lucy Braun’s snakeroot growing this time of year, but one thing you will find along the Middle Creek Loop, if you keep your eyes peeled and look closely, are stumps from the ancient American chestnut trees that once grew all across the eastern United States. It’s been 100 years since a blight wiped out the mature chestnuts, but their traces remain in a few places. 

Be Careful For: Young hikers will tend to scramble over the various sandstone boulders that can be found along much of the hike. Be careful that they don’t slip and fall. Also be careful to avoid trampling sensitive plants that grow inside the rock shelters.

Make It Better: Want more? On your way out, make a pit stop by Pogue Creek Canyon State Natural Area. It’s located along S.R. 154 between Divide Road and S.R. 297 back to Oneida. There are a number of trails found inside this incredible natural area that is located on the Cumberland Plateau’s western escarpment. The easiest of them is a 1.5-mile trail to the Pogue Creek Canyon Overlook. From the astronomy field parking lot, simply follow the trail to the overlook and back.

Remember To: Leave Only Footprints, Take Only Memories. Please pack out anything you pack in!

GC Staff
GC Staff
Go Cumberlands is the premiere source of information for visitors to Tennessee's Cumberland Mountains and Cumberland Plateau region.

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