As summers balmy weather began to move in this June, I started searching for a destination to spend a long weekend visiting, preferably somewhere with a cool mountain breeze. While doing some research, I came upon a little known State Park in the Upper Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee with a lot of promise. Known as, "Tennessee's Best Kept Secret”, Pickett CCC Memorial State Park lies a few miles south across the Kentucky border, within the Pickett State Forest and adjacent to Big South Fork National Recreation Area and Pogue Creek Canyon State Natural Area.
Pickett is one of the crown jewels of the Tennessee State Park System, dating back to Roosevelt's New Deal Era of the 1930’s. The park was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1934 and 1942 on roughly 12,000 acres of land donated to the state of Tennessee by The Stearns Coal and Lumber Company. Most of the park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to the wonderfully preserved recreation lodge, rangers station, and original rustic cabins guests can rent out.
Aside from that, what really drew me in were pictures of the grandiose rock shelters, arches, and waterfalls featured in the park. After spending two days hiking several of the trails here, I picked three of my favorite ones to feature. The very first trail is probably one of the shortest and easiest hikes I’ve done, leading to one of the largest rock shelters I’ve ever come across, Indian Rockhouse Trail. This is considered to be one of the Cumberland Plateaus best rock houses and after my time here, I can totally see why.
The trailhead is located along Pickett Park Hwy. Heading south, just past the visitors center, look for the Hazard Cave parking area. Directly across the street you’ll see the trailhead sign for Indian Rockhouse Trail. This short, 0.4 mile trail is not without some peril, as its path hugs the side of a cliff with a steep drop. A heavy blanket of fog lingers in the treetops during the early hours of most days, making morning hikes feel a little ominous, reminding me of the Great Smoky Mountains.
One thing I’ve noticed, spending time in the Upper Cumberland Plateau, is how quickly the weather can change. As we began our hike, the suns rays were shining bright, convincing me to leave my fleece in the car. By the time we reached the rockhouse, clouds had moved in, completely blocking out the sun, threatening to unleash a downpour on us. Luckily for us, this is a short 0.4 mile trail.
The entrance to Indian Rockhouse is partly hidden by a layer of dense underbrush and tree cover. As one follows the small trail, hugging the cliff, you find yourself walking straight into the first MASSIVE cavern, with the rockhouse opening up right in front of your very eyes. This was the very point at which the sky opened up, unleashing a steady downpour, creating a small waterfall, cascading down the front of the cavern opening. It was magical!
The wide opening of this shelter, reaching twenty feet into the belly of the cliff, made this an ideal spot for early native settlement during the Ice Age. The Pickett State Park Archaeology Museum and Research Station, showcases many of the artifacts uncovered in this region, dating back 12,500 years ago. The rock shelter is not only protected for its historical significance, but for its fragile ecosystem.
Many of the caverns along the Cumberland Plateau are home to the endangered Cumberland Sandwort. This small, delicate plant is found only in shaded rockhouses within this immediate region of Tennessee and Kentucky. Something else we noticed, are the many wild mushrooms sprouting all along this trail. The most eye catching of the fungi we spotted, was the mass of red mushrooms growing on this hemlock tree right in front of the rockhouse.
The Hemlock Varnish Shelf, also known as Hemlock Reishi, set themselves apart with their shiny upper surface, often in flaming shades of red or orange. Although the young white parts of this fungi are known to be edible, it quickly becomes tough and unpleasantly bitter with age. To me, it just looks like the real life version of a mushroom from the video game, Super Mario Brothers.
Although a small trail continues past the second cliff cavern, it is visitor made and where it leads, I do not know. Upon returning to the parking area, I headed off down the Hazard Cave Trail, so come back to see the next trail on our trip to Pickett CCC Memorial State Park, “Tennessee's Best Kept Secret”!