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 River and Recreation Area, and Pogue Creek Canyon Natural Area.
As I mentioned in our first article on Hiking to Indian Rockhouse, I wanted to focus on my 3 favorite trails at Pickett State Park. You can’t hike a bad trail here, as each one takes you through some incredible terrain. Just when you thought you’ve seen the best canyon views from atop a cliff, another trail leads you to a breathtaking arch spanning the parks lake, or one of the largest rock shelters you’ve ever been in. While the immediate trails closest to the parks center are moderately difficult, the trails on the perimeter can wander off 10 miles towards rarely seen waterfalls and steep canyon drop offs.
Our next hike lies directly across from the Indian Rockhouse Trailhead and leads to one of the few places in the world where you can find glo worms, the Hazard Cave Trail. Theres a lot about the name of this trail that is deceptive. First off, Hazard Cave , even though it has a large opening in which you can walk into, is not a cave at all, but a large stone shelter. Second, theres nothing hazardous about hiking this trail. The stone shelter was named after former Pickett State park manager, James Hazzard.
There are several entrances to this trail which can very your hike anywhere from 0.3 miles to the full extent of 1.60 miles. We chose the shorter 0.3 mile route purely because we found ourselves right in front of the trailhead, in between torrential rain showers, and decided to make the most of our "dry time”. From the parking lot entrance, you'll follow the gravel path to a set of steep wooden steps leading you down onto a forested ridge.
If you chose to do the full loop, you can go in either direction and you’ll eventually reach Hazard Cave. Along the way there are several cut throughs leading to Ridge Trail, Lake Trail, and Natural Bridge Trail that can easily turn this into a 5 mile hike. To head straight for the cave, make a left and head down yet another steep set of concrete steps down onto the valley floor.
Immediately, the sandstone cliff begins to rise, with its honeycomb weathering, creating perfect little roosts for native songbirds to nest in. As we hiked, wood thrush flew over our heads, circling over us as they chirped, only to head back to their nests on the cliff, repeating the process throughout our stay. A small path meanders off the trail, just before reaching the cave, with elevated views of the honeycomb weathering on the cliff and the opening to Hazard Cave.
As you round the hill in front of the cliff, the trail goes from dirt to wood plank walkway, taking you along the delicate habitat of the Cumberland Sandwort. As a result of trampling, rarity of the habitat, and geographic isolation, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Cumberland Sandwort as federally endangered in 1988. Due to this, the first stretch of caverns is walled off by a wood railing, protecting a lush garden of sandwort, ferns, and native coral bells.
The ridge top above the cave forms almost a perfect circle, with the forest growing towards the center of the opening, creating the appearance of a large terrarium. As millions of years of weathering have taken its toll to create the moon shaped cliff above us, whats left is a deep layer of sand surrounded by large boulders that were once a part of cliff face. A small creek runs along the edge of the walkway, creating a boundary separating the stone shelter from the dense forest.
A the end of this path lies the opening to Hazard Cave. Its gaping entrance is marked by two hand-sawn log benches. Walking inside the cavern, I couldn’t helped to be surprised by just how expansive this space is. It can fit half a football field while reaching twenty feet high. Even though we've visited plenty of caves, the excitement of stepping into a dark cavern, anticipating whats behind all of that darkness, never fades.
Some of the boulders scattered inside are as big as small buildings. The ceiling bears a large resemblance to the ceiling ion the great room of Mammoth Cave National Park, with its sculpted round layers.
Within this cave lives a rare glo worm found only in the Appalachian regions of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. In the 1970’s, a state park naturalist named Richard Hilten, discovered what appeared to resemble little blue lights glowing inside of the cave. The glowing lights turned out to be insects, attached to the walls within the cave.
The glow worms in Hazard Cave, are the larvae of fungus gnats, that grow to the size of a large mosquito. Several ranger-led hikes throughout the week, take visitors inside the cave, late into the evening, in order to catch a glimpse of the glowing worms.
The wonder and excitement that must have struck the minds of early human visitors to the cave is beyond my comprehension. Although its believed that early humans living in the Cumberland Plateau some 20,000 years ago, made use of these large rock shelters as convenient homes, their needs eventually outgrew these cliff dwellings.
Around 1000 A.D., a major shift to agriculture led Native Americans to leave the plateau for the more fertile river bottoms of larger streams. By the time European settlers began to explore the remote areas of the Cumberland Plateau near the late 1700’s, there was only very sparse Native settlement in the region.
In the time I’ve spent exploring the diverse areas of our country, I’ve come across enough caves, waterfalls, and canyon views to make the experience seem a bit anticlimactic. Yet its the individual stories attached to these sites that keep me interested in learning more about our shared history, not just as Americans, but as human beings, trying to scratch out a life on this giant rock we call home.
On my last and final article on Pickett State Park, I’ll reveal my last favorite hike here. Stay tuned and see y’all on the trails!