If you ever have an opportunity to go for a run in the Volunteer State, chances are you’ll figure out real quick what you signed yourself up for. Uphill travel, son. Some heart thumping, lung burning, thigh searing suffering. This place has got itself some mountains, and most of its trails just head straight on up the side of ‘em. And once you go up, you gotta come down. Sorry knees.
But with challenge comes reward. Vibrant beauty lies around every bend. The world throbs with palpable green energy. Vegetation creeps closer by the minute. Everything is alive.
Having lived out west most of my life, accustomed to sweeping landscapes and open horizons, I sometimes feel hemmed in by the trees in Appalachia. The only way to escape the claustrophobic sensation is get to the top of a ridge and climb several flights of rickety stairs up an old fire lookout tower – only to be haunted by the sight of ridgeline after ridgeline after ridgeline of forest for as far as the eye can see. One has to readjust. To realign perceptions. Reset preconceived interpretations of splendor. Here, beauty lies close in. It exists in the minutiae, explodes in the vitality and congruity of ecosystems.
The trails go up, and the trails go back down, but more than that they go along and through and beside. Water features abound. Brooks, streams, creeks (cricks?), and rivers. Waterfalls galore. Plants grow on plants growing on plants. Big trees shade little trees which shade even littler trees. The color of the world is green. Even the air, the very air itself, all thick with humidity and hanging dense under the canopy, is green. You run in the green, inhale and exhale it. And the sounds, the intensified ‘OM’ of creation. The birds, the frogs, the rushing water, the insects. The cicadas can be deafening, their pulsating din directing your attention to the hum of the universe.
This is in the summer, of course. All other seasons have their time in Tennessee as well. So I’m told. Splendid fall colors and all that. I was there last week in the early spring, bare limbs on the trees, their buds only beginning to show. But mostly I know it in the heat, when the air is a thick mass. I know it covered in sweat, skin glistening. I know it as a living breathing entity, a place to run and be alive along with everything else.
And I don’t know it all that well, truth be told, having only spent a couple of summers out that way, but I do know that Tennessee can be a phenomenal place to run. Tough in all the right ways, and pretty as all get out. Just about every trail I’ve run there parallels (or crosses twenty times…) a watercourse of some sort. Most trails also keep you in that green shade, though you’ll be sweating like crazy regardless, of course. And the nuanced varieties of scenery and micro-ecologies are never ending.
Tennessee also has a surprising amount of public land, both state and federal, and at least a few thousand miles of trails. As mentioned, we spent a few quick days out that way last week, and randomly visited several parks in middle Tennessee. The trails in all of them were spectacular, well maintained, and almost devoid of other users. As it was early spring, the air was brisk with the occasional storm rolling through. Heavy rains in the lower elevations had already set the green in motion. Up on the Cumberland, winter was barely letting go, but it was great running weather and the absence of leaves allowed for slightly longer views than in the summertime. The hills were still everywhere.
The first place we stopped off was Montgomery Bell State Park where we headed out on a ten-mile loop circumnavigating the park boundary. Unlike the trails I remember in Eastern Tennessee, which go up for miles before going down more than a couple of feet, this trail gained and dropped the entire way, climbing one hill to traverse a ridgeline over to the next draw, then following a creek down until the next significant turn in the trail where it was back up again. It was a super nice trail with a steady pattern of challenging sections and lots of great scenery.
The next couple of days we were over on the Cumberland Plateau, which has multiple options for hiking, running, biking, and climbing. The first afternoon found us in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. Pretty much just headed out from the first trailhead we came to, the majority of the loop we chose following along and underneath a band of sandstone cliffs. Each turn revealed huge eroded overhangs, generally replete with a curtain of water falling from their apexes. We probably passed 20 or more spectacular sites in a mere couple of miles, each of which could have been a destination of its own.
The following afternoon we went to Pickett State Park, which sits only a few miles away from where we were the previous day. If the two state parks we happened upon are any indication of what the rest of the state has to offer, as I’m sure they are, they must all be worth a visit. (Have I mentioned there’s no daily admission?) Like Montgomery Bell, Pickett boasts a network of well-marked trails. And also like Montgomery Bell, the terrain and scenery vary with each new section of trail. I was able to combine several different loops in an hour or so of running, passing by several notable features along the way. A decidedly satisfactory excursion.
Most of the time I’ve spent in Tennessee has been in the eastern part of the state, near its border with North Carolina, the squiggly line on maps that represents the ridgeline of the Appalachian Mountains. And while middle Tenny has plenty of steep topography, these are the mountains I spoke of in the beginning. The real deal. Having lived a fair amount of my adult life in Colorado, I once scoffed at the idea of legitimate mountains in the east. I mean, look at those things, they can’t even get themselves out of the trees… But buddy, you start running up one of those little inclines, and keep running up it, and keep running up it, and repentance is imminent. You will believe!
There are lots of options for running in these mountains, but no flat ones, or even moderately rolling ones, that I’ve found. They go up a couple thousand feet. They go down a couple thousand feet. And here’s the thing: as most of us are a lot slower at running up than running down, you’re going to be going uphill at least twice as much as you’re going to be running downhill. Not that going downhill is all that easy either, mind you. I’m sure you get the point, but to truly understand is to experience.
My experience derives from the couple of summers I spent in Hartford, a tiny little exit town on I-40 about an hour west of Asheville, NC and just north of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hartford, which exists primarily due to its role as the hub of rafting on the Pigeon River, sits within easy access to numerous trail systems on a range of public lands. Depending on the day, I would run in the Martha Sundquist State Forest, the Cherokee National Forest, or the national park. The first two areas are great for being alone, though some bushwhacking may be required as the trails receive little use and minimal maintenance. Both necessitate regular tree ducking, log jumping, spider web across the face tolerating, and occasional route finding – all part of the adventure. Nearby, the access points to the northern sector of the national park aren’t nearly as crowded as those outside of Gatlinburg, and the park boasts over 800 miles of trails. Like most national parks, the further away from the nearest trailhead you make it, the less people you will encounter. Awesome loops abound, and easy out-and-backs await. A few of my favorites would be Big Creek up to the bridges, Big Creek to Swallow Fork to Baxter Creek, and the Boogerman Trail (as much for the name as for the route) over in Cataloochee.
The last thing to mention about running in these incredible places is that wildlife can be abundant. A watchful eye is recommended, mostly for the pleasure of spotting whatever it is that you happen to see, but also for personal safety. I’ve seen far more bears while running in Tennessee than anywhere else. One week in late August I came across three different sets of mothers and cubs, in completely disparate areas with miles of separation between. The last encounter was a bit worrying, as the mother was clearly displeased with my presence. I also have a great video of two copperheads that came out of the bushes seconds after I passed and started mating on the trail. Most of the time, however, sightings provide less intimidating memories and equally good stories. Under every third rock in almost all the streams you’ll find a salamander. Herds of deer and the occasional elk are frequently seen. I’ve also crept up on a bobcat, and was once stopped dead in my tracks when a huge turkey flew out of a tree directly above my head and ‘soared’ a few hundred feet down into the valley below. Like Tennessee itself, it was as majestic as it sounds.