House Mountain is a hidden treasure: a mountain very close to Knoxville, apart from both the Smokies and Cumberlands. While short even by East Tennessee standards, you can still see miles of surrounding countryside from its summit.
Yvonne and I climbed up the Mountain Trail recently with our friend Linda. The two of us had originally wanted to reach Gregory Bald in the Great Smoky Mountains, but due to time concerns we aimed for something closer and shorter.
Closer and shorter, but still sweltering in the summer. Our older friend Linda, who came with us, decided to quit and lie on a rock rather than climb up all the way. We also ran out of water quickly in spite of me thinking I had enough bottles for Gregory’s Bald.
In the summer, the climb features berries, butterflies and wildflowers, many of which will lead to later posts on this blog so stay tuned. It also features poison ivy, which doesn’t much affect me, but may lead to problems for others. So you may need long pants and even more water. But for me the trail is worth it.
Many locals know it well, so you won’t be entirely alone. At least we weren’t. But once they cleared out at the summit, it was just the two of us, the fence lizards and the vultures circling below us.
The trail is rocky. This used to make Yvonne panic but now she just sees it as part of a strategy. My strategy heading down is to trot fast enough that my momentum stops me from falling. Yvonne insists on carefully putting her feet in exactly the right places.
Landlocked folks love ocean stuff. People want something exotic, themed to something that isn’t nearby. It’s with all this in mind, I assume, that Ripley’s decided to make Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.
It’s smaller than its nearby competitor the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga with far fewer fish and other creatures of the deep. I visited Tennessee Aquarium last year and will give a review here at some point.
In any case, Ripley’s has got some advantages that make it more geared toward children. With a playground in the center, two chances to touch sea creatures, a crawl-through tunnel that lets children be surrounded by penguins and various interactive exhibits, it makes for a very kid-friendly place. Also the smaller size makes it a great place to cool off in the air conditioning after a hot hike — which is what we did after climbing House Mountain -rather than spend all day.
While the place doesn’t seem to trust the animals to carry the attraction, it does have some good ones. With giant crabs, graceful sharks, speedy rays, cute penguins, piranhas, mudskippers, jellyfish, eels, clownfish (kids know them as Nemo), blue tangs (kids know them as Dori) and lionfish among others, the place is full of some impressive creatures. The focus is on fun, but there’s nothing wrong with having some fun.
Adults can visit too, although it is a bit pricey. But I can say Yvonne and I certainly had a good time.
I visited Sat. June 7, with Yvonne, fairly late at night (from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. when the crowds had thinned out, letting us crawl through the children’s penguin tunnel to view the penguins. Don’t judge us.
The best part, as far as I’m concerned, is the shark lagoon tunnel, allowing you to see sharks swim above you as you move through a tunnel, along with a sawfish who likes to rest on the tunnel’s top. It’s best to visit this part when crowds have thinned because you can walk on the carpet rather than being stuck on the conveyor belt. The moving sidewalk has the advantage of speeding up some people while slowing down others.
The use of Pacobell’s cannon as background music there made Yvonne joke it sounded like the sharks were about to get diplomas. But the piece does its job in making people see the sharks as something other than scary.
Yvonne’s favorite part was getting a chance to touch moon jellies, a species with so little venom they’re harmless to touch (as a side note, that link’s to another aquarium, but I like to mix things up in terms of sources when it comes to learning about animals). The aquarium also lets visitors touch horseshoe crabs.
The weakest parts of the aquarium are in the special exhibits sections. The shipwrecks exhibit would be OK interactive fun due to its interactive archaeological activities and educational touch screens, but there’s something just annoying about hearing a repeated snippet of “The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot over and over again. For some reason it’s not even the full song. It’s not a bad song, in fact it’s a good one, but for Yvonne especially, it just gets to be too much.
Since I don’t know how else to end this, here’s that song in its full version and only playing once.
Bright yellow bushes of shrubby St. John’s wort greet visitors to the Melton Lake Grenway’s Boardwalk in Oak Ridge, Tennessee in summer. The bright yellow flowers are still distinctive against the dim evening light and the dark blue of Melton Hill Lake.
Melton Lake Greenway’s boardwalk isn’t for everyone. It’s right next to a coal fired steam plant, which might be enough of a turn off for many to not even consider what the trail has to offer.
But what it has to offer at this time of year is bright yellow St. John’s wort flowers, many birds and fishing, although none of the fellows I saw seemed to catch anything. As Yvonne put it, the area looks like a marsh on the edge of the ocean, even if all it borders on is a narrow lake.
St. Johnswort is a reminder of how lost I am at identifying and talking about plants without my dear old “kickass botanist” Dad. For more on our relationship read our book., but in short, he’s been around to identify every plant around us on every hike for most of my life since I was toddling around barely taller than the roots in the trails we walked.
“A non-Tennessee plant on an artificial lake, surrounded by power cables and towers. And yet I somehow still enjoy the landscape.”
All well and good, but wrong. As Dad pointed out and I should have figured out, there are multiple species of St. Johnswort and the one we were looking at, which grows as a bush, i.e. Shrubby St. Johnswort was native.
At any rate, most people if they think about any variety of plant at all, think about it as an herbal tea that’s supposed to make people feel emotionally better, curing anxiety and depression. It often works for me, although Yvonne loathes its taste.
Pictures don’t really convey the mural by artist Curtis Glover accurately, as part of its charm is looking for the individual creatures, some of them obvious, others hiding in details. A sign gives all of their species.
What I applaud this mural for doing is getting people to see what lives in the 10 Mile Creek area. Runners, cyclists and people using 10 mile Creek Greenway to get from point A to point B have no time to dig through the creek and find crawdads, but the mural lets them see just how full of life 10 Mile Creek really is.
But it’s not going to work. People will do all of the above. Which they did at Midnight Hole on Labor Day last year when I visited.
I’m more on the careful side. I just swim. And so does my frequent hiking companion Yvonne Rogers. But for many, enjoying jumping from a bolder into briefly numbing mountain water is the perfect end to the summer. And I can’t and won’t stop them at Midnight Hole.
(As a side note Yvonne Rogers, my girlfriend who can really rock a two piece on trips like this always reacts with mock anger after being called just called “frequent hiking companion.” Which is why I run the phrase into the ground on this blog).
The water is a deep pool with trout, at its deepest near the rocks where thrill-seekers routinely jump. It’s also frigid beyond belief.
Summer in the Smokies is like washing yourself in a pool full of shades of green. You don’t see far beyond the trees around you, although those are so tall that they make city trees look like grass blades, in spite of not even being the oldest growth and being silly short-by-comparison East Coast Trees, not redwoods. You’re in a room with walls that don’t end but rather just put up green leaves here and there so you only see in clearings.
There’s a voice inside me that says “Yes, it’s a forest. With trees. Enough already.” Such is the inner conflict of people who write about nature on a regular basis.
The exact look clearings with their summer flowers and butterflies such as the mourning cloak also are unique to summer. None of them will flutter about in the winter.
And just like that it will all be coming to an end. Leaves already began on my trip last year to look yellow.
I will miss the thick green. And I will miss feeling even at all like plunging in ice cold water even for a second once this summer ends too. I’m happy to be posting this when it is summer again.
Last year Labor Day came and went. And I joined many that day at midnight hole, by the side of an old logging road, trying to grab summer before it crumbled on us into dried leaves and artificial pumpkin flavoring gimmicks (which, go ahead and shoot me, I love both of). But we have to enjoy summer when it’s here and fall when that’s here and winter when that’s here.
Mouse Creek Falls
Mouse Creek Falls was our eventual destination. The road to it, was also traveled by people on horses, which we saw passing by and tried to avoid stepping in the manure.
There’s no sign marking Mouse Creek Falls. We missed it the first time passing it, and kept going until we saw a sign telling us just how staggeringly far we’d come past our point. I told Yvonne I’d chosen this spot and Ramsey Cascades precisely because it would be shorter when, in reality, we wound up going just as far. But neither of us were mad.
We headed back to a place we had thought was just a hitching post (see this page for more details on that kind of mistake However, it was worth seeing the site in the romantic light of evening. While not as large as many waterfalls in the Smokies and certainly not the roaring Bald River Falls in Cherokee National Forest, it has what Yvonne called a “fairy-tale” quality, seeming like the kind of place where she figured unicorns might likely live. I recommend it as a spot to visit with your lover, if your lover doesn’t mind stepping around horse crap.
Happy summer! It’s time to enjoy wading, floating, swimming and splashing around! Here are a few spots on or near Cumberland Trail State Park to do it, not in any particular order. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s a start. More to come, possibly!
For more on that trail, I recommend getting my book Wildly Strolling Along: Father-Son Nature Adventures on Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail. More a collection of memoirs of day hikes with my father than a guide, it’ll nonetheless give you an in depth look at flowers, wildlife, waterfalls, rockhouses and plenty more. I’d like to thank the Cumberland Trail Conference for providing me with much of my information for that book. All photos here are by me. None of the videos are.
Obed Wild and Scenic River
Looking down from Nemo Bridge in the protected area known as the Obed Wild and Scenic River, you may see many people floating about. If you like being with others and not far from the road, this place “Wartburg Beach” as locals call it is the spot for you. More hidden swimming spots await elsewhere in the Obed Wild and Scenic River and Catoosa Wildlife Management Area parts of the CT. I even swam naked at one of them. Just make sure you’re far away from Wartburg Beach proper before you try that.
A fairly deep pool depending on rain sits right below Imodium Falls on the Possum Creek section. If you can get past the name, it may just be perfect for you.
I’m not usually much of one for jumping from rocks. But apparently some people are.
The Piney River section in Piney River pocket wilderness area is among the best. Deep pools for swimming shallow spots for wading and, if you hike far enough, a good ways from the crowds. Ideally, experience this area as part of a backpacking trip so you can get plenty of time here like my father and I did.
The pocket Wilderness areas were created by the Bowater paper company. Piney is not to be confused with another pocket wilderness that’s even more famous and often just called “Pocket” by the locals. It’ s below.
Laurel-Snow Pocket Wilderness “Pocket”
Known to locals as just “Pocket” this area is near Dayton, Tennessee.
I’ve written about it in a piece for The News Sentinel and can safely say spending time there with my girlfriend Yvonne apart from my main hike was a relaxing way to spend an afternoon. While on my main trek, the swimming holes were just one of the many things I explored about the place. Yet on return, I had to pry Yvonne, my girlfriend and hiking companion away from the swimming hole we found to look at other parts of the trail there.
I’m not the only one to discover it. Here’s a video from some other visitors enjoying a day there, shot with far better technology than I currently have to film it.
It’s been a while since I’ve been alone on a trail. And I like it. Who am I kidding by just saying “like”? It’s amazing.
Being alone, ducking under a massive rock overhang. Being alone seeing the beginnings of fall colors. Being alone watching crawdads dart backwards beneath Crystal Falls. Being alone going into deep green hemlock groves. Sure my thoughts might wander and sometimes getting them to truly focus on my surroundings might be harder with just me. But it is just me. No one to tell me to go back, not a slight bit of phone reception. Not a single other soul, save a trail runner briefly on the way back, no one.
Some people might not recommend this. Even out here away from muggers, if something happened to me, there would be no cell phone reception. But I’m restless. Restless to see new places, at least new to me. Too restless to check if anyone else wants to go with me. My feet just need to walk.
The route (roughly)
Starting at a group cabin area, my route begins on trails that have no official name heading on from there under a massive sandstone rock overhang beneath which the trail continues. It’s easily head-clunk-able, as the trail dips right beneath it.
The fall colors are beginning to show here but haven’t yet conquered the canopy.
Then, after a steep downhill trail, Crystal Falls itself. A series of drips rather than the kind of roaring mass of white like the more famous waterfalls around here. But it’s the sort of sacred-seeming place for sitting and meditating. Or for watching the crawdads … crayfish … crawfish … lobster thingies walk along the bottom of a transparent pool or jet backwards, perhaps in fear of me, although I cannot read their shell encrusted minds.
But I can’t stay. Restless, I walk on, through bare exposed rocky spots, through dark hemlock groves, heading onto the Sheltowee Trace trail, with its turtle logo.
Sheltowee, incidentally, is the name the natives called Daniel Boone, meaning “big turtle.” Possibly it was because he looked like a turtle, though most pictures of his usually-elderly face in portraits show no real resemblance to me anyway.
What is it that drives me to come out here? Is it beauty? Then why do I keep moving rather than stopping? Is it exercise? Then why did I drive all the way here rather than just walking or running near my home? No, I love what I love. I must keep walking. I must see what’s next. I must.
You are not me. I won’t force you to forest bathe, when you really may prefer bathing in a bathtub. But you might be like me. In which case, the trails of Pickett State Park may be perfect.
While my route wasn’t on the map picked up at the park office, it can be found on this map as part of the “Hidden Passage Trail.” The link here is
Picket CCC Memorial State Park isn’t just trails and looming sandstone formations. It boasts a small museum with live turtles in a tank, a dramatic suspension bridge, boat rentals and many different cabins, not to mention a commemorative statue that, while skillfully made, looks like it came from a cheap romance novel cover. Visit it online here http://tnstateparks.com/parks/about/pickett.
Note: This stream of consciousness writing is an account of visiting in early autumn, which I had originally held off on posting until the next autumn. However, I’ve learned that trails change and close so often, it’s better to post sooner than later. You can look forward to more things posted out of order in the future, unless any of you really object. Do you? Please let me know if you do. In the meantime, enjoy your trails in the spring!