OAK RIDGE - Don't go hiking or biking on the Dyllis Orchard Road Trail expecting to find scenic vistas or waterfalls.
Instead, listen to the songbirds calling from the brushy corridors beneath the power lines.
With its single-lane gravel roads, forested ridges, and wetlands, this relatively new trail system at the western end of the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge Reservation is both wild and tame - more rural than an urban greenway, but more urban than a back country trail.
Located on State Highway 327 (Blair Road) on the outskirts of Oak Ridge, the Dyllis Orchard Road Hiking Trail is open to hiking and mountain biking on a system of gravel roads that cover approximately 15 miles. The trail system is part of the 3,000-acre Black Oak Ridge Conservation Easement developed by DOE a few years back to compensate for pollution to the lower Watts Bar Reservoir caused by DOE activities on the Oak Ridge Reservation.
The gravel roads that make up the Dyllis Orchard Road trail system cover a lot of ground. A single loop hike from the trail head parking lot is about 7.5 miles long, with about 15 miles overall if you were to hike or bike all the interconnecting loops on the area.
For a shorter hike, there's a new single track trail through the woods that intersects with the gravel roads to form a 1.5-mile loop. Starting at the trail head on Blair Road, go a couple hundred yards up the gravel path and turn right onto the woodland trail. On a recent visit, we were accompanied by Jim Evans, with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, who described the woods as a typical valley-and-ridge blend of oak-hickory hardwoods and pines.
"All this was farmland and orchards until the 1930s and 1940s," Evans said. "From a wildlife standpoint, these woods are very productive, especially for turkey and big deer."
After a short hike in the woods, the new section of single track trail comes out at the old perimeter road that parallels a rusted chain link fence. Go left, and follow the perimeter road for a half-mile. At the top of a hill, veer sharply to the left onto another gravel road. After about half a mile, this road takes you back to the gravel road leading to the parking area. The entire loop is about a 45-minute walk.
The chain link fence along the border of the property is a reminder that these woods and fields served as a security buffer for K-25 plant, where the gaseous diffusion method was used to enrich uranium for the first atomic bomb. The plant, once the largest structure in the U.S. under one roof, is now being torn down by DOE in a major undertaking that's expected to cost $810 million.
The Dyllis Orchard Road trails cover mostly rolling terrain. The going doesn't get steep until the road drops down to the Clinch River at the far end of the area, 4 miles from the parking lot. A trail map is posted at the parking lot, and at most of the road junctures.
"There's no way to get lost out here unless you completely walk in circles," Evans said.
The low-cut vegetation beneath the power lines actually enhances the small game and songbird habitat, as do the property's numerous fields.
In terms of birding, the Dyllis Orchard Road Hiking Trail area is second to none. Every spring wildlife biologists conduct surveys to monitor migrating songbird populations. The most productive stop on the Dyllis Orchard Road area is where a field of switch grass adjoins a grassy opening, with some woods nearby.
Evans said 25 to 30 species of birds are seen or heard here each spring, everything from field sparrows to woodpeckers, hawks, and bobwhite quail.
"This scrubby kind of habitat is fast disappearing from East Tennessee," he said. "A lot of people want their fields to look like a city park or a golf course. From a wildlife standpoint, that's not desirable."
The Dyllis Orchard Road Hiking Trail is west side of Blair Road on Black Oak Ridge. The conservation easement also extends east of Blair Road on Black Oak Ridge to include the North Boundary Trail, a popular greenway near downtown Oak Ridge.
Hunting is allowed on the Dyllis Orchard Road Hiking Trail area. Note that the trails will be closed to hikers and bikers tomorrow (April 3), as well as April 10 and 17 from 5:30 a.m. to noon during turkey season.
From Oak Ridge, take Highway 95 (Oak Ridge Turnpike) toward Kingston/Lenoir City. Stay on Highway 58 toward Kingston, and turn right on Blair Road (Highway 327) at the traffic light. The Dyllis Orchard gravel road and trailhead is 1.8 miles down Blair Road, on the left.
Morgan Simmons may be reached at email@example.com or 865-342-6321.
© 2010, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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