Close your eyes and picture a deep canyon with an abundance of caves, waterfalls, arches, mesas and sandstone bluffs you would normally have to travel to the southwestern United States to view. Open your eyes to one of the jewels of The Nature Conservancy and Tennessee's park system, Pogue Creek Canyon State Natural Area! This 3,000 acre natural area located on the Northern Cumberland Plateau, was a side quest on our recent trip through Pickett CCC State Park and The Big South Fork NRRA.
I first read of Pogue Creek Canyon while researching places to best view the 2019 Solar Eclipse. As it turns out, in conjuncture with Pickett State Park, Pogue Creek Canyon has one of the darkest night skies in the southeastern United States. It carries the privilege of being one of the few places in the country to be a part of the International Dark Sky Association. Due to its remoteness and high altitude on the Cumberland Mountains, clear night skies along its astronomy field offer visitors a detailed view of the Milky Way rarely seen by most city dwellers.
I can still remember the first time I experienced a true dark sky on my first solo camping trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in 2008. As our evening campfire died out, I happened to glance up and catch the tail end of a passing meteor streaking across the night sky. The sky was full of plumes of colors in different shades of red, pink, and blue that were dotted with millions of stars. I was in complete awe. This was the first time I can remember contemplating the possibilities of what else could be out there, in the vastness of the universe. The humbling experience was ingrained into my mind, and is till this day an impactful experience.
With so much going for it, its crazy to think that this whole area was on the verge of being destroyed, as it was slated for commercial and residential development. Recognizing its importance, the Tennessee Chapter of The Nature Conservancy acquired the land in order to protect it, and in 2006 turned it over to be designated as a state natural area. Since then, theres been a grassroots effort by volunteers to build trails along areas that showcase the beauty of the canyon.
The most commonly hiked trail at Pogue Creek Canyon is the Overlook Trail. To reach the trailhead, pull into the Pogue Creek Canyon Natural Area parking lot just off HWY 154, about 2 miles south of Pickett State Park. Surrounding the gravel lot is the Dark Sky Project Astronomy Field. Its not uncommon for the park to be empty during the day, only to come back after sunset to find it brimming with people out on the field, stargazing with their telescopes. The meadow surrounding this area is also a perfect place for birding.
Walking through the mowed path leads straight onto the trail as you disappear within the forest. As you wind down the hillside, you’ll suddenly encounter a massive rock shelter known as Turkey Roost. Theres a trail leading through the inside, as well as the outside of the large boulder field within the shelter that was once a part of the edge of the cliff above. Those that are young at heart might prefer to climb their way over the rocks.
Hiking past the small overlook with the wood rail benches, you go down another embankment leading to a cavern with a creek running through it. Looking down at the muddy crossing we could see a lot of fresh animal tracks and after our bear encounters in Twin Arches, we decided not to venture into the cave.
As the trail slowly ascends the valley, a cliff will form to your right, with a steep drop into the heavily wooded forest. The trail eventually splits with one going down slightly below the overlook, while the other climbs straight onto a bald cliff. We chose the right path heading onto the cliff.
Things get a little dicey from here on out. As the trail thins down to only allowing one person through at a time, its best to hug the cliff on your right while carefully keeping on eye out for snakes. Yeah… on top of worrying about falling down a cliff, you also have to worry about not disturbing any of the timber rattlesnakes or copperheads that might be sun bathing on the exposed rocks. For those wishing to explore the canyon further to Mesa Top Overlook, Killdeer Arch, and several waterfalls, the 2 mile Upper Canyon Trail begins here.
Once you traverse the wood boardwalk onto the top of the bald cliff, you have finally made it! This is the most rewarding and dangerous part of the whole trail. If you have small children with you, make sure to keep them close.
The top of this cliff has many small paths leading to incredible views of Pogue Creek Canyon along with deadly drop-offs down sheer cliffs. Just when you think you found the best view, you’ll stumble onto an even better overlook a few feet away. The landscape here reminds me a lot of scenes from The Last Of The Mohicans, where the main character has to carefully climb along sandstone bluffs to escape a pursuing enemy.
Just across the ridge you can see a home, literally perched on above a cliff. This is the type of development the nature conservancy sought to stop by protecting this land. Had they not stepped in, most of the forest here would have been bulldozed into the valley below, destroying the rich plant and animal life that reside here.
With the canyon then becoming private property, it would have been lost forever. In my opinion, the best way we can preserve our wild lands is by encouraging people to explore them, not by locking them away. Its hard to fight for something you can’t see, hear, or feel…. and its even harder to miss something you never knew you had in the first place. Do yourself a favor, get out there and fall in love with our wild lands and help support local, regional, or national efforts to preserve them for the enjoyment of future generations to come.