TELLICO PLAINS - For sheer mass and thundering sound effects, Bald River Falls in Monroe County might be the most impressive waterfall in Tennessee.
The 80-foot-high cascade is hard to miss as you drive along Tellico River Road. Countless visitors to the Cherokee National Forest have snapped its picture from the bridge near the base of the falls.
Above Bald River Falls is the 3,721-acre Bald River Gorge Wilderness Area, which contains some of the most accessible hiking trails of any designated wilderness area in Tennessee.
Continue upstream, and you come to the Upper Bald River Wilderness Study Area, a remote tract that's included in a citizen's campaign to expand the wilderness system of the Cherokee National Forest by 21,170 acres. At present, the Cherokee National Forest contains about 66,000 acres protected under the National Wilderness Preservation System.
The proposed additional wilderness acreage would be distributed among six locations at the northern and southern ends of the forest. At 9,112 acres, the Upper Bald River Wilderness Study Area is the largest on the list, and the only area that would not connect to an existing wilderness area.
One organization that has been lobbying hard for the new wilderness areas is Tennessee Wild, a project of the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition. We recently joined Jeff Hunter, a field organizer for Tennessee Wild, on an all-day hike around the perimeter of the Upper Bald River Wilderness Study Area. It made for a marvelous day hike, but at 17 miles, the distance would have lent itself equally well to an overnight backpacking trip.
Our hike took us into one of the most remote wild areas in the eastern U.S. We saw scenic waterfalls, crystal-clear plunge pools, and cove hardwood forests that haven't been logged since the early 20th century. A portion of the hike took us along the Benton MacKaye Trail, a footpath of nearly 300 miles that stretches from Springer Mountain, Ga., to the northeast border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
For a shorter day hike than the one we did, start at the Brookshire Creek Trail Head on Forest Service Road 126 (Bald River Road) and hike to Beaverdam Bald for an out-and-back distance of 12.5 miles.
After an immediate crossing of Henderson Branch at the trailhead, you'll follow the Bald River into the upper reaches of the stream's watershed. A 1.9 miles, look for a gorgeous waterfall on your left. About 200 yards above the falls, you'll come to the confluence of the Bald River and Brookshire Creek. Take the right fork onto the Brookshire Creek/Benton MacKaye Trail. The stream cascading down the mountain next to the trail is Brookshire Creek, a tributary of the Bald River.
At 5.9 miles, the trail forks into the Brookshire Creek Trail to the left and the Benton MacKaye Trail to the right. Take the left fork (Brookshire Creek Trail) and follow it 3<0x2044>10 of a mile to a three-acre wildlife clearing. At the other side of the wildlife clearing will be an old jeep road. Hike several hundred yards up the jeep road and turn right onto Beaverdam Bald Road. From there, it's just a hundred yards or so to Beaverdam Bald, elevation 3,950 feet.
An invaluable hiking guide to all of the trails in the Cherokee National Forest is the "Cherokee National Forest Hiking Guide," edited by William H. Skelton and written by the Harvey Broome Group of the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club.
The Upper Bald River Wilderness Study Area also contains the Kirkland Creek Trail, as well as a portion of the Benton MacKaye Trail that hugs the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina. Primitive camping is permitted, but because the Forest Service manages the area as de facto wilderness, the size of each backpacking group is limited to 12 people.
From Knoxville, take Highway 411 south to Highway 68 to Tellico Plains. At Tellico Plains, follow Highway 165 (Cherohala Skyway) for 5.3 miles, then bear right onto Forest Service Road 210 (Tellico River Road). After six miles, you'll pass Bald River Falls on the right. Stay on Tellico River Road another eight miles and turn right on Forest Service Road 126 (Bald River Road) toward the Holly Flats Campground. Follow FS Road 126 for five miles and look for the Brookshire Creek Trail Head on the left. A trail marker identifies the trail as FS Trail 180.
Morgan Simmons may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-342-6321.
© 2010, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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