Tuesday, September 10, 2013

On the JMT... of Tennessee

I couldn't help boasting about this trip, "This weekend, I'm backpacking the JMT… of Tennessee!"
The John Muir National Recreation Trail goes 20 miles along the Hiawassee River gorge in eastern Tennessee.  John Muir traveled this route on his long walk from Kentucky to the Gulf of Mexico, and Muir's description  (see here- read under Sept 19) of the incredible river still aptly describes the wonder of this river today.  
Water levels were low enough to exposed the unique jagged rock formations of the Hiawassee River.
My friend Salt and I began at the western end at Childers Creek trailhead, and we highly recommend the scenic first 3 miles to Big Bend.  It's well maintained and follows the northern bank of the Hiawassee River below towering bluffs.  The Benton Mackaye Trail Section 13 is concurrent with this part of the JMT.  
Fascinating geology and diverse plant community including pawpaws, one of my favorites.
Past Big Bend Parking Area, Hiawassee River Road is popular with fishermen, and there are frequent parking areas and boat launches with trashcans, picnic tables, and bathrooms.  The area (especially the nearby Ocoee River) is also a mecca for whitewater rafting and kayaking, and we wondered a few times why were hiking rather than staying cool in the water like the fishermen and boaters.
Joe pye weed along the Hiawassee River.
Lunch at one of the many picnic areas along Hiawassee River Road.
From Big Bend to Towee Creek, the trail left the river and ascended a very short distance up the hillside.  We stayed within sight of the road so it was pretty much like walking along road, only rougher and more difficult.  I'm not sure point of this but it did take us to an overlook along some rock formations.

The 2008 reroute between Towee Creek and Wildcat Creek led further away from the river and up over a tall bluff.  We followed beautiful Towee Creek before switchbacking up to the spine of the ridge.  It was a hot humid climb and we were dripping in sweat.  Afterwards we joked that we'd bagged a 14er.  Such bad-ass JMT hikers!  Of course it was only a 14-hundered footer, but whatever...
It was hard going.  Gnats were especially vicious and kept flying into nose, eyes, and ears. 
Our original plan had been to camp at Coker Creek, but the heat and mugginess had sapped so much energy that we decided not to go any further.  Hammocks were hung above a bluff over Wildcat Creek.  We had dinner under a rocky overhang, and soaked tired feet in the river while swatting (unsuccessfully) at the blood-thirsty no-see-ums.

In the morning, we decided to follow the old route of the JMT/BMT on the return trip to the car.  The section was much more used and still marked with signs and blazes all the way to the suspension bridge over the Hiwassee River and the Apalachian Power House.
Walking along the old route (rather than the reroute) provided lovely views of the river.  There were fishermen out all along this peaceful stretch of water.
The old trail markers showed where the old route used to veer off the road into dense forest along the riverbanks.  We followed the blazes through really overgrown trail and eventually got tired of fighting the thick brush.  We suspect other hikers also must walk the road which was much more pleasant.  Though I wonder how many people hike this stretch- we certainly didn't see any other backpackers, just one dayhiker, and lots of fishermen.
Overgrown section.
Just before we got back to the trailhead, as I was strolling along looking up at the pawpaw, Salt shouted something from behind me.
Looking up at the tons of pawpaws all along the trail.
I walked a few steps further before turning around.  She exclaimed that I'd stepped on a snake!   Sure enough there was a copperhead in the path looking very angry. 
Anyway, she saw the snake move when I stepped on it, but it didn't bother me, not even a nibble.  And he looked to be still very alive.  Ironically, she'd just been talking about seeing a snake and how snakes are reported to be common along this section of trail.  I've since read that copperhead bites are really rare, that they only inject venom half the time anyway, and thought it's painful, hardly ever deadly.  Not that I'd ever step on one on purpose, but it's another thing that I'm not gonna fear.

Overall, the first few miles of the JMT from Childers Creek were exceptionally pretty and I think they'd make a fantastic day hike, especially in fall or winter when the weather wouldn't be so brutally hot.  It was great to be on the trail with my friend Salt and on the way home we scouted out the next trailhead for the BMT so I'll look forward to returning to this area for more adventures.

Information and trip planning notes
(note: information on the John Muir National Recreation Trail was really disappointing and lacking so I've included an annotated description of resources.)

Sherpa Guides has some regional information here.

The BMT Trail Guide for Tennesse showed the old and new reroute, which was helpful.  However, it wasn't as detailed about the confusing road crossings.

The Trails Illustrated map #781 Tellico and Ocoee Rivers is easier to read than the trail guide, and shows road access.  However, it didn't show the old BMT route, even though both new and old routes are still signed and blazed.  Potentially very confusing.

This Backpacker Magazine article on the JMT at least had directions to the trailheads and for the shuttle.  However, it doesn't describe the reroute even though it was published in 2010, and the description made us wonder if the author had actually hiked the trail.

Unfortunately, the BMTA trail descriptions that had been so helpful for sections 1-11 are not available for this section, but a map is available for free download.


  1. ahh geez...one of the copperheads from my herd escaped...now I'm gonna have to go all the way to TN round it up and drag it home.

    you know how I feel about those things...HATE UM...now more than ever since one killed my cat last week.

  2. Great descriptions and looks like a nice hike, even if the one section was overgrown. Two years ago I was doing a veg study in the Big Thicket, happened to put down my pack against a tree and then stand directly over a copperhead. I jumped so far when I saw it, freaked me out!! They are expert at camouflage that's for sure! Needless to say we had to keep an eye on it the entire time we were in the veg plot.

  3. @JJ- thought this one looked like one of yours- quite sneaky.

    Seriously though, I'm so sorry to hear about your cat that's terrible. They are getting really out of control.

  4. @Misti- seeing a copperhead that close up is an unforgettable experience for sure. Does make you realize how effective that camouflage is. That'd be quite unnerving to know there was living in your field plot.

  5. okay enough snake talk, pawpaws are good and sweet too. I've never run across any in the southeast, but boy did I when I hiked out of Harpers Ferry WV in 2009.

    "pickin up paw paws put'um in my pocket, way down yonder in the paw-paw patch"

    I made it to camp very late that day with pack pockets filled with sweet goodness

  6. Out of Harpers Ferry is exactly where I ate my first pawpaw too! Absolutely delicious. Hard to find fruit down here- spent many years searching, and the JMT has more than any other place around.