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BY JENNIFER PHARR DAVIS
When it comes to hiking around Knoxville, Tennessee, Johnny Molloy wrote the book. Actually, he’s written three of them: “Five Star Trails: Knoxville,” “50 Hikes on Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau,” and “Top Trails: Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”
And that may seem a bit paltry compared to the whopping 56 total outdoor guidebooks he’s penned through the years. Still, East Tennessee is his home, the University of Tennessee is his school (Go Vols!), and the Smoky Mountains and Cumberland Plateau are his playground. There’s no better authority for hiking near Knoxville than Molloy. I caught up with him to talk trails in the area and what hiking enthusiasts headed to OWAA’s 2015 conference should know. Here’s what he said:
JPD: What makes hiking in this area special?
JM: Geographically speaking, Knoxville couldn’t be better situated for offering a variety of terrain and trails on which to trek. Centered at the bottom of the Tennessee River Valley, Knoxville is flanked to the east by the crest of the Southern Appalachians and to the west by the Cumberland Plateau. The Great Smoky Mountains rise within sight of Knoxville.
Most of the trailheads on the Tennessee side of the Smokies are within an hour’s drive of Knoxville, so it is only natural that area residents flock to this national park. The Smokies set the stage for hikers and are the seed for developing a hiking community in the heart of East Tennessee, but there are many more places for a trail treader to trod than that magnificent park.
The Cumberland Plateau rises to the west of the Tennessee Valley. The Plateau, as it is known in these parts, offers distinctly different terrain with correspondingly different hiking experiences. Here you have water carved gorges slicing through this elevated table of land, exposing rock walls, creating rock houses, sheer bluffs and other geological features that complement the green expanse of the Smokies.
And then there is the ridge and valley country north of town, a sort of blending of the Plateau and the high ranges to the east. Here you have places like Norris Dam State Park, where narrow hollows are flanked by tightly packed ridges (imagine a rumpled carpet), never particularly high, but nonetheless creating an attractive landscape over which to walk.
The Tennessee River Valley is no flatland itself. Knoxville is a hilly town. And with citizens interested in hiking it is only natural that trails and greenways aplenty have been created in the greater metropolitan area that make going out on a walk even more convenient. Trekking in the Tennessee Valley adds one more spice to the entrée of offerings in addition to the Smokies and the Cumberland Plateau.
JPD: How would you describe the scenery people will see on the trails?
JM: Hiking in Knoxville can mean a ramble through the wilds of the Great Smokies, a trip to a geological formation on the Cumberland Plateau, a walk in the deep dark hollows of the ridge and valley country or a quick escape on a greenway near town.
To our south we have the largest tract of wilderness in the eastern United States — the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Over 900 miles of trails lace this crown jewel of the Southern Appalachians. You will learn to love the trails in the vast mountain lands that lie within the sublime and primitive Cherokee National Forest, much within an easy drive of Knoxville.
The geologically fascinating Cumberland Plateau rises to the west — hike your way past rushing rivers, deep gorges, wild waterfalls and other rock features. Hikes stretch in all directions, from the rugged splendor of Frozen Head rising to our west, to the lakeside Big Ridge State Park lying north, to view-laden Panther Creek State Park in the east, to historic Fort Loudon State Park in the south.
JPD: OWAA is coming at the end of June. What type of clothing should people plan to bring to be prepared?
JM: It depends on where you are headed. Up high, expect highs in the low 70s, and cool evenings and mornings. In Knoxville, highs will reach the low to mid 80s. Trails on the Cumberland Plateau will be somewhere in between. Thunderstorms could pop up in the afternoons. I suggest shorts, short sleeve shirt, low-top hiking shoes and a jacket for storms or cool conditions in the high country.
JPD: What do people need to know, or think about, when planning a hike in the area?
JM: Realize with nearly 5,000 feet of elevation variety, conditions will be different depending upon where you go. Also, expect traffic on weekends in the Smokies. I suggest going to the Smokies during the week and other regions on the weekend. ♦
—Jennifer Pharr Davis has logged over 12,000 miles of long-distance hiking on six different continents, and she was named a 2012 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. She is the owner of Blue Ridge Hiking Company (http://www.blueridgehikingco.com) and the author of five books, including her newest title “Called Again.” She lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband Brew and their daughter Charley
Five must-hit hikes near Knoxville
Fort Loudoun State Historic Area
Make a 3.4-mile loop on a water-encircled peninsula at this site of an 18th century English fort located less than hour from Knoxville. First, travel hilly woods overlooking Tellico Lake. The trail then winds through open meadows before returning waterside. A climb leads to rewarding overlooks of the Southern Appalachians. After your hike, incorporate a visit to the park museum and fort.
Frozen Head State Park: Emory Gap Falls and DeBord Falls
This 2.8 mile out-and-back hike in mountainous Frozen Head State Park located about an hour from Knoxville, leads to two named cascades as it explores a rugged valley carved from the highest terrain on the entire Cumberland Plateau. The hiking is easier than you may guess as it follows an old roadbed most of its distance. Traveling along North Prong Flat Fork stream, the hike enters a wildflower-laden valley to reach DeBord Falls, which is complemented with a shaded pool. The ascent sharpens upon joining Emory Gap trail where Emory Gap Falls drops over a stone lip framed by a rockhouse.
Cumberland Trail above LaFollette
This is one spectacular hike. Follow the Cumberland Trail as it leaves the town of LaFollette, located about 40 miles north of Knoxville, then climbs the slope of Cumberland Mountain. You will join a knife-edge ridge with protruding spine-like outcrops that offer expansive vistas. Peer upon LaFollette below and southward to the Smoky Mountains and west into the wild Cumberland Plateau, culminating in the Powell Valley Overlook. Beyond this vista, come to a backcountry trail shelter, high elevation stream and Window Rock, a stone wall with porthole in it. It is 5.6 miles there and back.
Smoky Mountains: Baskins Creek Loop and Spur to Baskins Falls
This 6-mile loop, very near Gatlinburg about an hour from Knoxville, travels through surprisingly hilly terrain and winds amid multiple ecotones to reach Baskins Falls. The route returns via Trillium Gap Trail. Auto accessible pioneer homesteads are passed en route to the trailhead.
Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville
Use a series of trails to make a pair of loops totaling 3 miles. Leave the worth-a-visit visitor center and raptor enclosure, bisecting wooded hills to reach Mead’s Quarry. Circle around the lake leftover after marble mining operations ceased. The circuit makes a big climb above the quarry, reaching a pair of overlooks. Head to the Tennessee River. See Maude Moore’s Cave; pass by a wildflower rich hillside near Otter Island, then climb back to the nature center.
– Information provided by Johnny Molloy