Photo by Briana Scroggins
DAYTON, Tenn. - Hiking on a hot summer day is a lot more inviting when there's a mountain stream next to the trail.
The Laurel-Snow State Natural Area gets its name from two waterfalls, Laurel Falls and Snow Falls. Laurel Falls is 80 feet tall, and Snow Falls plunges about 30 feet.
Access to this 2,259-acre Laurel-Snow Natural Area in Rhea County begins at a spacious parking lot just three miles from downtown Dayton, site of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. The hiking is generally easy, especially for the first 1 1/2 miles as the trail parallels Richland Creek, a mountain stream that flows off the eastern slope of the Cumberland Plateau.
It's a classic creekside hike reminiscent of the Little River Trail near Elkmont in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Leaving the parking lot, the trail ascends gradually up the main gorge carved by Richland Creek. Coal mining took place here in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The trail passes a large coke oven built into the rock, and the retaining walls built as part of the mining operations are remarkably intact.
At normal flow Richland Creek is characterized by a series of ledges and flumes separated by deep, clear pools. The stream rises quickly when it rains. In the winter and spring, it's a Class III-IV whitewater run that draws creek boaters from Chattanooga and Knoxville.
In the summer, it's a fantastic place to swim.
"Swimming is one of the most popular forms of recreation at Laurel-Snow," said Lisa Huff, ecologist with the Tennessee Division of Natural Areas. "It's a great place to cool off in the summer."
Swimmers need to be aware that the lower sections of Richland Creen can rise quickly in the summer as a result of thunderstorms higher up in the watershed.
Laurel-Snow Natural Area is one of 79 natural areas in Tennessee. It was owned by Bowater Inc., and managed as a Pocket Wilderness Area until 2007, when the company transferred the property to the state of Tennessee.
Today, the Laurel-Snow Natural Area's trail system is part of the Cumberland Trail, a linear state park that currently is under construction and, one day, will stretch 300 miles along the east side of the Cumberland Plateau from Cumberland Gap National Historical Park to Chattanooga.
The Laurel-Snow Trail was the first National Recreation Trail designated in Tennessee. As you hike up the trail, the gorge gradually deepens and gets narrower. Massive boulders and rock ledges provide bird's-eye-views of Richland Creek below, and overhead are the cliff walls that form two of the natural area's most prominent overlooks, Buzzard Point and Bryan Overlook (also known as Raven Point).
After 1 1/2 miles, the trail forks. The trail to the right climbs to Laurel Fall and the trail to the left leads to Snow Falls and Buzzard Point. Even if you don't hike up to Snow Falls, it's worth following the trail to the left just to see the 150-foot metal bridge that spans Richland Creek.
The trail to Laurel Falls follows a series of switchbacks up a side canyon carved by Laurel Creek. On a recent visit, the waterfall was spectacular thanks to ample rain. Spilling over the cap rock, Laurel Creek dropped 80 feet onto a pile of boulders surrounded by jewelweed and stinging nettles.
To reach the Laurel-Snow State Natural Area from Knoxville, take Interstate 40 west to the Rockwood exit, and go south on U.S. Highway 27. As you come into Dayton, turn right off Highway 27 onto Walnut Road between the Walgreen's and Rite-Aid. Bear left at the first split in the road, turn onto the first gravel road on the right, where you'll see a brown State Natural Area sign.
The trailhead parking lot is at the end of the gravel road. Driving time from Knoxville is about one hour and 45 minutes.
Morgan Simmons may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-342-6321.
© 2009, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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