We really didn't know what we were in for when we set out to hike the Rattlesnake Ridge Trail from the Rock Creek Campground in Tennessee's Cherokee National Forest. We had just gotten settled in on an unseasonably warm Thursday in October around lunchtime and only had the afternoon to hike the trail before rain and wind forecast for Friday moved in, so we didn't even take the time to research the trail before heading out.
That may have been a good thing. I suspect the over 2500' of climbing to the top might have scared me off. But it was so worth any suffering and sore muscles afterwards.
I'm pleased to report that we didn't see any rattlesnakes, thankfully, but we did see some amazing fall foliage, so please come along on a virtual hike in this magnificent forest and see for yourself.
The Rattlesnake Ridge Trail starts out along Rock Creek among dense Rhododendrons. The foliage was nice at this elevation (~2300') but would get much more impressive as we ascended.
From the trail looking out, I stood transfixed, as I saw...
It was truly glorious. I just love fall foliage!
In addition to the views of mountains nearby, the trail was resplendent in shades of orange, red, yellow, and green. Along the outer edges of the mountain, the foliage was in full fall color.
The "inner", sheltered parts of the trail, less open to the sun and sky, remained greener and mysterious. Check out this huge tree that had fallen across the trail, continuing to allow passage beneath its massive trunk.
Finally we reached the top of the mountain, where there is an overlook that you can drive to. We saw several cars and their people taking photos there; we were the only ones who had hiked up. We got some questions about the trail from those who had driven up. We didn't even see a trail marker at the top, so you have to know it's there if you want to hike down.
At this elevation (4845', according to our GPS), the color was past peak, showing what a difference elevation makes in fall foliage timing. The view was still beautiful. but the colors not as vivid, and the sky had clouded up by this time as well.
Now it was time to head down the 2500'+ we'd just trudged up. If you have cranky knees, the descent can be the toughest part of a summit hike, and I was glad for my hiking poles. It was definitely easier on the heart and lungs than the way up, though!
Along the way down, I stopped to take photos of a few individual branches I found especially pretty as well as what the trail floor looked like in places -- so many bright leaves at my feet!
One last look at this brilliant view.
And finally, a return to the "lowlands" by Rock Creek, still lovely in the late afternoon.
This was a pretty tough hike for me (less so for Barry), and I was sore for a couple of days afterwards. But as I said at the start, it was worth every bit of discomfort. We won't soon forget this one!
We arrived at Rock Creek Recreation Area in the Cherokee National Forest in mountainous eastern Tennessee not knowing just how full the campground would be. It takes no reservations and is fairly small, with only 33 campsites, five of which are doubles that would be overkill for us. And this weekend would likely be THE peak weekend for fall foliage in this part of the country. So we had reason to be a little nervous.
We arrived on a Thursday fairly early in the day, as we had a short drive from Natural Tunnel State Park in southwestern Virginia.
We were in luck. The campground was not even half full! Sites are arranged in three small loops (A, B, C), plus one walk-in primitive tent-only loop. All the non-primitive sites have 30-amp electric service, and there are water spigots scattered around the campground, though not at individual sites. Campground bathrooms have flush toilets, and there is a dump station. Our cost was a reasonable $15/night with Barry’s Senior pass.
There really aren't any bad sites in this lovely campground, though some are longer and probably more level than others. The heavily wooded setting makes for excellent privacy, at least so long as there are leaves on the deciduous trees! We had another rig across the road from us but no one on either side -- nice.
Due to less-than-ideal weekend weather (rain and a cold front) after a gorgeous day Thursday, only a couple more rigs came in Friday and Saturday, so the campground was only about half full all weekend. The campground was mostly very quiet and dark -- our type of place!
We got only one over-the-air TV station here, PBS. Due to all the trees and mountainous terrain, sometimes it came in better than others. We got 2 bars of Verizon 4G LTE, so internet through our Mifi device was fine.
Check out this gorgeous insect Barry spotted on our picnic table. We'd never seen anything like it. It's all decked out in Tennessee Volunteers colors!
There are two hiking trails and a short unpaved bike trail leaving right from the parking lot. We didn't pull our our mountain bikes to try the trail as Barry's rotator cuff was still healing up, but we did take two excellent hikes while in the park.
The photo above was taken as we headed out for our longer hike on Rattlesnake Ridge Trail. We'll share that one in a separate post, as we took many photos. In the meantime, here's a shorter hike we did later in our stay, right after a blustery cold front passed through. You'll notice a big difference in what I'm wearing in these two hikes!
Rock Creek Waterfall Trail Hike
This pretty woodland trail follows Rock Creek up to the waterfalls and is less than two miles round trip, though does involve a decent amount of climbing (1028' of elevation gain, according to our GPS).
We had read that there were Upper and Lower Falls, so every tiny waterfall we saw as we hiked we assumed was the Lower Falls, but we kept revising our opinion as we got to larger waterfalls along the trail. When we got to the Upper Falls, though; there was no question that we were there as the trail ends in a large cliff and you can hike no farther.
We had to cross Rock Creek a couple of times as it meandered to and fro across the trail.
Here's one of the smaller waterfalls we thought was the Lower Falls, but it wasn't! Still, it was very pretty with all the Rhododendrons around.
Here are the Lower Falls!
We continued hiking a short ways more, uphill of course, and arrived at the Upper Falls. There wasn't a lot of water this time of year, but it was still very pretty!
Stay tuned for our next post -- the fall foliage we saw from the Rattlesnake Ridge Trail was some of the nicest we've ever seen!
Growing up in nearby North Carolina, I had heard of Natural Bridge in Virginia, but never Natural Tunnel. This geological formation and its namesake state park in the southwestern part of the state was our next stop for two nights. Here's a description of the tunnel's history and geology from Wikipedia:
The Natural tunnel, which is up to 200 feet (61 m) wide and 80 feet (24 m) high, began to form more than a million years ago when groundwater bearing carbonic acide percolated through crevices and slowly dissolved limestone and dolomite bedrock. A small river, which is now called Stock Creek, was diverted underground and continued to erode the tunnel over many millennia.
There are a couple of steep park roads to get to the park's campground (come on Pearl!), but once we finally arrived, it was level and worth the drive. There are two camping loops. We chose the Lover’s Leap loop, which has 50-amp electric/water back-in gravel sites plus a new and very nice, clean bath house. The other loop is older and has 30-amp electric/water pull-through sites.
By our frugal standards, this is a relatively expensive park at $35/night plus a $5 parking fee per stay and state tax. However, an unexpected surprise was the laundry room in the bath house. It was super reasonable at just $1 each for a the washer and dryer, so I did an unplanned load. The campground is up high, so we got a good Verizon 4G LTE signal for internet but only one TV station with our over-the-air antenna, PBS. Better than nothing!
We chose site 6, which was large and level and had privacy from foliage behind, but no privacy in front, and not 15 minutes after we got settled, another rig came in and chose site 7 right in front of us, so we wished we’d chosen a different site. Oh well, at least it was a quiet couple! Our loop was only about half full on our first night, a Tuesday, and we noted on our walk with Paisley that the other loop was even more sparsely populated.
On Wednesday night two couples checked in after dark and took the sites on either side of us. They did not respect quiet hours, and their kids were running back and forth from site to site and chattering loudly until at least 11 pm, while the adults hung out around the campfire on site 7 (the quiet couple had left, unfortunately). This is one of the only times since we started RVing that we’ve had problems with noise after quiet hours, other than the occasional truck coming or going.
The next morning one of the women from the party put signs on all the site posts around us, so we think they were having a reunion or a large group of friends coming in later that day. We were relieved to pull out of there and leave them to it as we would have been totally surrounded. This is the level of activity we expect in state parks on weekends, but we were surprised to have this many folks mid-week after the start of the school year.
But the hiking was nice!
On our first afternoon in the park, we took a hike on the Purchase Ridge Trail. We had the trail all to ourselves, and it was so pretty, with beautiful fall foliage along the way.
I have always been a fan of this pretty evergreen ground cover, and there was lots of it along this trail.
The foliage was nice too!
At the highest part of the trail, we got a peekaboo view of the natural tunnel that gives the park its name. We'd see it much closer up the following day.
The next morning and our only full day in the park, we headed out to hike the rest of the numerous but short trails. The only one we missed on the map below was the Spring Hollow Trail. We would have hiked it, but we simply didn't notice it until I pulled this map up afterwards. Darn!
The Lover's Leap Trail is where to go to see the view of the Natural Tunnel from above. The chasm depth is 400 feet. It was a beautiful mid-October day for tunnel gazing and leaf peeping!
At the Visitor's Center, we bought a magnet for our board and a sticker for the back of Pearl. We also took in this cool locomotive engine, where I had fun playing train conductor. A busload of school children were just leaving from a field trip, so we had really good timing!
At the Visitor's Center we picked up the Tunnel Trail to get a closer look at the natural tunnel. This trail is only a third of a mile but has lots of stairs and switchbacks, so most folks take a chair lift down and back up for a small fee. Naturally, we chose to walk it!
Once at the bottom of the chasm, we were actually able to walk right across the rails to a deck where you could get a closer look at the tunnel.
Here's the tunnel from the side...
and the front! Too bad there wasn't a pedestrian walkway.
Here's a smaller, man-made tunnel looking back in the other direction. This is where we were able to cross the tracks.
After checking out the tunnel, we took a short spur trail (not shown on the map above) along the creek to the charming Carter Cabin.
After climbing all the stairs back up the Tunnel Trail, we hiked the Tunnel Hill Trail (actually much less hilly!) and saw this pretty specimen in full fall color.
We stopped for one last look at fall foliage from the Lover's Leap Trail on our way back to the campground.
Noisy campers notwithstanding, we had a good time visiting this state park. I am sure it is much busier during the summer, but we had the hiking trails mostly to ourselves, always a plus.
Next up, we enjoy four days in beautiful eastern Tennessee, where the fall foliage is absolutely PEAK.
Emily & Barry
We're a long-married, early-retired couple who are currently traveling as nomads with no fixed home base. After years of living in North Carolina (Emily's home state), we spent 18 months living oceanfront on Ambergris Caye, Belize, a year road-tripping the US in a Honda CR-V, a year in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and are now roaming North America in our 32' motorhome, Pearl, following warm weather whenever possible.
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