CARYVILLE, Tenn. - Just north of the Caryville-Jacksboro exit on Interstate 75 is the Devil's Racetrack, a rock formation so eye-catching it challenges you to keep your eyes on the road.
Geology students come from far and wide to observe these vertical flakes of sandstone that protrude from the butt end of Cumberland Mountain like jagged teeth.
The Cumberland Trail takes you to the top of these outcroppings. Starting at the Cove Lake State Park trail head/parking area, it's three miles up the Devil's Racetrack, and three miles back.
On our recent hike, we were accompanied by Harry Moore, retired geologist for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, and author of numerous books on Tennessee geology, including "A Geologic Trip Across Tennessee by Interstate 40," and "A Roadside Guide to the Geology of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park."
In the mid-1980s, Moore worked on a TDOT project that re-channelized Bruce Creek, the stream that flows at the base of the mountain parallel to I-75. Until our hike, Moore had worked in the shadow of Devil's Racetrack, but had never hiked up to the outcropping.
When completed, the Cumberland Trail will stretch approximately 300 miles along the east side of the Cumberland Plateau from Cumberland Gap National Historical Park to Chattanooga. Right now, about 170 miles of trail are finished and open to the public.
The parking lot at Cove Lake serves the trail's Smoky Mountain section, which heads south to the New River headwaters in the heart of the Cumberland Mountains, as well as the Cumberland Mountain section, which leads north to the Devil's Racetrack, and along the crest of Cumberland Mountain to LaFollette.
With a combined distance of some 35 miles, these two sections provide the longest point-to-point hike currently available on the Cumberland Trail.
About 1.5 miles from the Cove Lake trail head, the Cumberland Trail heads up Bruce Creek. Interstate 75 is on the left, and so close you can almost feel the 18-wheelers whizzing by.
Moore explained that before Bruce Creek was channelized, the stream would flood periodically and erode the interstate embankment. We passed a large box culvert that re-directed the stream. Farther ahead, we passed four lovely waterfalls that had been blasted in the rock to dissipate the stream's energy.
The engineers created an artificial box canyon, complete with plunge-pools and vertical sandstone walls. As the trail ascended up the narrow gorge between Cumberland Mountain and I-75, we could see where workers had drilled holes for blasting into the rock.
This was Moore's first visit to Bruce Creek in more than 20 years.
"It has healed up pretty well," he said. "This trail we're on is actually the old creek channel. We moved everything over about 40 feet away from the interstate."
After crossing Bruce Creek on a footbridge, we began climbing out of the narrow gorge to the Devil's Racetrack. The ascent wasn't steep or particularly long. After a few switchbacks, we were above the interstate traffic.
The woods contained mountain laurel, rhododendron and blueberry bushes. Near the top, the surface of the trail turned to white sand - the result of the quartzite having eroded out of the sandstone conglomerate along the crest of Cumberland Mountain, explained Moore.
At the top of Cumberland Mountain, the Cumberland Trail continues northeast along the crest of the mountain toward LaFollette. Instead of bearing left in that direction, we turned right toward the Devil's Racetrack.
Why the name? Bob Fulcher, manager of Cumberland Trail State Park, said he has made several inquiries over the years and can verify that people in Caryville have been calling the outcropping the Devil's Racetrack as far back as the early 1900s.
Fulcher said he believes the name is consistent with many 19th-century place names that ascribe the devil's ownership to wild, contorted landscapes.
We ate lunch on top of the uppermost flake overlooking I-75. To our left was Powell Valley, to our right, the Cumberland Plateau, and straight ahead, just across I-75, were the Cumberland Mountains.
Moore explained that Devil's Racetrack formed some 250 million years ago during the Allegheny Orogeny, a period of mountain building caused by the collision of North America and Africa. The resulting compression created numerous faults where masses of rock moved along break lines in the Earth's crust.
A famous example of this, said Moore, is the Pine Mountain Thrust Block, a 124-mile-long, 25-mile-wide displaced portion of the Cumberland Plateau between Pine Mountain and Cumberland Mountain that was pushed northwest along a fault line from what is today Lake City.
As Cumberland Mountain formed, layers of sedimentary rock - sandstone and shale - were tilted 90 degrees from horizontal to vertical.
At the southwest end of Cumberland Mountain, the exposed outcroppings formed the Devil's Racetrack.
"What we see now with Devil's Racetrack is the result of differential erosion," Moore said. "The softer shale has weathered away, leaving the vertical beds of quartzite sandstone we see today."
Moore said Devil's Racetrack reminded him of Charlie's Bunyon and Chimney Tops in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Pinnacle Overlook in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.
"I'm impressed," he said. "This is quite a spectacular sight. I'll be back."
To reach the Devil's Racetrack trailhead from Knoxville, take I-75 north to the Caryville-Jacksboro Exit 134. Turn left off the exit, and continue a half-mile past Shoney's to Bruce Gap Road. Turn right under I-75; the fenced-in parking area for the Cumberland Trail is a short distance on your left just after you cross Cove Creek Bridge.
A left out of the parking lot takes you to the trail's Smoky Mountain section of the Cumberland Trail, while a right heads to the Devil's Racetrack and on to LaFollette.
Morgan Simmons may be reached at 865-342-6321.
© 2009, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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