Pogue Creek Canyon State Natural Area is one of the hidden gems within Tennessee’s park system that is slowly gaining a reputation as one of the most beautiful natural areas in the state. The 1.0 mile Mesa Top Trail is one of three hiking trails that explores the breathtaking canyon vistas, caves, and arches of this 3,000 acre property. Deep in the canyon below, along the Upper Canyon Trail, visitors will be treated to one of the most unique arches in the region, Killdeer Arch which is also known to locals as Birds Arch. With its convenient location adjacent to Pickett State Park and the Big South Fork N.R.R.A., these trails can be added to an extended weekend adventure along the richly diverse region of the Cumberland Plateau.
Mesa Top Trail | 1 Mile
Upper Canyon Trail | 2.05 Miles
Pogue Creek Canyon State Natural Area Location | Google Maps
It’s a no brainer that whenever I travel to the west side of the Big South Fork or Pickett State Park, I have to make a stop in Pogue Creek Canyon. I dare say that this tiny natural area has canyon views that are even more stunning than its larger sister property next door. While the trails here are short, they can be strung together to make an epic 10 mile day hike with over 700 feet of elevation change that would challenge even the most experienced hikers. On a previous trip, I ventured along the Overlook Trail to explore the upland forest of Pogue Creek Canyon. Beginning in the south end of the park, this path traverses past Turkeys Roost rock shelter and makes several stream crossings through cave laden cliff lines, all the way to an amazing canyon overlook at the end of a 1 mile trail.
On this trip, I’ll be exploring the north end of the canyon along one of the newest trails in the park, Mesa Top Trail. This easy 1 mile trail follows an old worn out logging road along a wooded ridge which flattens out above the canyon into several sandstone mesas. With several steep scrambles down boulders and up staircases to reach the final overlook, this trail gets a little thrilling near the end. Just below the overlook, along the Upper Canyon Trail, is a quick detour to visit the parks main arch, Killdeer Arch. Clocking in at 5.0 miles, this scenic day hike is something almost anyone can undertake in a few hours.
We begin this trip by taking a turn off Pickett Park Highway, onto the mostly gravel Black House Mountain Rd. This is one of the main roads that connects all of the rural homesteads situated around Pogue Creek Canyon and the base of Black House Mountain. Following the road for roughly 5 miles, I found the small dirt pull off just across from the Moccasin Rock Trail exiting Pickett State Park. There is no official trail sign indicating the start of the Mesa Top Trailhead, which starts directly opposite the Moccasin Rock Trail. In this case, you just have to know what to look for. The entrance is somewhat hidden behind some brush and is guarded by a large steel cable dissuading people from driving in.
Most of the initial 0.75 miles in are along a retired logging road that was once used to harvest large pines and oaks during the logging boom of the mid 1900’s. In that time frame, plans were made to develop the canyon into a small community and there are even scattered homesteads built high up along the canyon rim which are viewable along the trail. Despite all of this, the forests and ecosystems of the canyon were able to remain largely untouched due its steep and rugged terrain. Recognizing not just its beauty, but its ecologically diverse plant life and habitat, The Nature Conservancy stepped in and bought the 3,000 acre property in 2005, formally handing it over to the state in 2006 for permanent protection.
Close to the 0.50 mile mark, the trail splits with the logging road taking a sharp right turn and the rest of the Mesa Top Trail continuing straight ahead. From here, the ridge begins to thin out and the canyon comes into view through the trees until you reach the first big overlook along a steep scramble. This scramble leads to an exposed crag with a steep, nearly vertical staircase leading down. It’s the first of two staircases and several overlooks soon to come. Up above I can spot several birds circling the area, but its hard to tell what species they may be. Pogue Creek Canyon is known to have several nesting pairs of bald eagles that have made this place home in the last several years. Part of the reason why the trails here only cover a tiny fraction of the protected land is to conserve as much of this space as habitat for some of the threatened species of animals that live here such as; bald eagles, Swainsons warblers, Eastern slender glass lizards, and the green salamander.
At the bottom of the 20 step ladder is another flat mesa lined with a surprising plant, HUCKLEBERRIES! This hard to find native berry has earned itself a cult following among outdoors people for its sweet, yet tart taste. Huckleberry is a term used in the U.S. to describe numerous variations of plants, all of whom bear small berries that take on different colors, such as red, blue, or black. These plants inhabit acidic and infertile vegetative areas such as exposed ridge tops with thin and rocky soil. It’s quite easy to tell the difference between wild blueberries and huckleberries mainly because blueberries sprout berries in clusters, whereas huckleberries produce single berries where the leaves join the stem.
Once I step back from the small patch I realize that there are huckleberries everywhere. This troubles me because the only thing that loves this fruit more than people are bears. Where there is food, there is likely to be a wandering bear, so I immediately begin to call out loudly to make my presence known. On the other side of the berry patch is a double flight of stairs leading up to the last mesa and the large overlook at the end of the Mesa Top Trail. Sure enough as soon as I take my first step up, I look down to see claw marks on every rung of the entire ladder. A few of the them are broken clean off from what must have been the weight of a pretty decent sized bear. While the average female black bear can weight 175 pounds, the average male black bear breaks the scale at 400 pounds.
Several spots on the railing had tufts of black hair from where the bears fur must have got snagged on its way back down. Never having touched bear fur, it was fascinating to feel the dry and bristly strands of hair between my fingers. The final 0.20 miles atop of this solitary mesa is absolutely beautiful. Our path travels underneath gnarled pines and hemlocks shading out even more patches of huckleberries. From the rim I can see all the way across the valley and I’m amazed by the view until I reach the final overlook and my jaw drops. Even on an overcast day, the valley of Pogue Creek is breathtaking. How something like this exists in Tennessee is beyond my understanding, but I’m glad it does and I’m glad to be here experiencing it.
Instead of heading out, I’ll be finishing up this hike by traveling back down off the mesa to the Upper Canyon Trailhead and hiking a quick 0.30 miles to view Killdeer Arch. With it being so close to our current location it seems a shame to not at least pay a visit. While the 2.0 mile Upper Canyon Trail is absolutely incredible and passes by several hidden arches, rock shelters and caves, I don’t have enough daylight to complete the entire 5.0 mile out and back hike. It’s a straight shot off the ridges and down into the upper canyon of Pogue Creek.
Even after the steep 500 feet drop in elevation from the mesa to base of the cliffs, we’re only about halfway down to the banks of Pogue Creek. The entire dynamic of the area changes once you step out from the forest and into the sand dunes surrounding the rock shelter of Killdeer Arch. You might as well have been transported to the deserts of North Africa, nevermind thinking you were still in Tennessee. To reach the arch, one must traverse these dunes created from thousands of years of weathering and erosion that are slowly chipping away at the sandstone cliffs above our heads. The entire base of these bluffs is covered in pocket caves filled with the federally endangered Cumberland sandwort.
Over 300 different species of plants inhabit this canyon, with some of them being found only in a handful of other counties in the state. While inspecting one of the rock shelters up close, another hiker appeared, walking out from behind Killdeer Arch. This gentleman is a resident of Pogue Creek Canyon, living in one of the homesteads near the canyon rim. As we chatted about the about of this place, he began to explain the meaning behind locals calling the arch “Bird Arch”. While killdeer are the most widespread shorebird in North America, these ground nesting birds have steadily expanded their range inward and inhabit open pastures, lake and pond margins and gravel roads.
If you look at the arch opening closely from just across the sand dunes, the shadows are deep enough to make out the shape of a soaring bird on the left corner of the opening. It’s not until you step into the arch that one realizes that this “soaring bird” is actually another smaller arch within the bigger arch. In fact, there are half a dozen small windows carved out of the rock that make up this landmark. The natural opening at the bottom of this cliff is the entrance to another enormous rock shelter along the Upper Canyon Trail. This is just a sneak peak of what’s to come for those that chose to continue along this trail. Sights like this just make me want to say screw it and go on ahead, but with the sun slowly lowering below the horizon, I’ll surely get stuck out here in the dark and that’s not something I want to risk.
On the bright side, this gives me an excuse to pay Pogue Creek Canyon another visit in the near future. To think that the trails here only cover a tiny fraction of the overall area. There must be even bigger canyon views, arches, and caves that have yet to be discovered within this isolated gorge. Up next, as I travel back in the direction of home, I’ll be stopping by Hemlock Cliffs to pay it a return visit. Earlier this year I hike through this special area in the Hoosier National Forest to see the spectacular frozen waterfalls and ice cones one can only see in the depths of winter. This time around I’ll be exploring the massive rock shelters and caves of this hidden gem during the heat of a mid summers afternoon. Stay tuned and until next time, see y’all on the trails!