This section discusses day hikes in and around Unaka Mountain. Rock Creek Recreation Area, Rock Creek Falls Trail, Rattlesnake Ridge Trail, Beauty Spot from Indian Grave Gap on the AT, Cherry Gap Shelter from Iron Mountain Gap on the AT, Red Fork Falls, and Limestone Cove Trail are described in further detail below.
Rock Creek Rec Area
Rock Creek Recreational Area offers a variety of outdoor experiences with some pretty nice amenities. There is a play area for children, a natural flowing swimming pool, fishing, hiking trails, and a bicycle path. There are 38 camp sites with Wi-Fi and shower facilities that have hot water. Rock Creek was originally built in the early 1940s by the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). The natural flowing swimming pool, bath house, and concession building were all originally built by the CCC.
To get to Rock Creek from ETSU, from West Lake Street turn left onto Southwest Avenue and then make a right onto University Parkway. Follow University Parkway toward Elizabethton and make a right onto Interstate 26 headed toward Erwin.
Take Exit 36 toward Main Street in Erwin and turn left onto Harris Hollow Road.Then turn right onto North Main Avenue. Stay on North Main Avenue until reaching Rock Creek Road also known as Highway 395 and then make a left. Stay on Rock Creek Road until reaching the entrance to Rock Creek Recreational Area on the left.
The trailheads for Rock Creek Falls Trail and Rattlesnake Ridge Trail are located in Rock Creek Recreation Area.
Driving directions to Rock Creek using Google Maps is linked here.
Rock creek Waterfall Trail
Distance: Approximately 4 miles round trip
The trek to two beautiful waterfalls begins from within the shadow of Unaka Mountain at Rock Creek Recreational Area. The Rock Creek Falls Trail follows Rock Creek for about 2 miles to the base of Upper Rock Creek Falls where the path comes to a climatic end. Green is a persistent color as great rhododendrons, ferns, dog nettle and other species thrive in this draw of Unaka Mountain. Trillium, spotted wood lilies, and crested dwarf irises also know the trail as home.
The start for Rock Creek Falls is near the camping pay-point at Rock Creek Recreational Area. There is a $2 fee for day use at Rock Creek but the fee is well worth the price of admission. The trail is about four (4) miles in total. The walk is pretty level at the beginning of the hike as the trail follows Rock Creek through adjacent camp sites. Once past the camp sites, the trail gets more uphill. The uphill is usually steepest not long after crossing the creek.
The trail crosses the creek four times for a total of eight creek crossings. On most occasions, each crossing can be navigated without getting your boots wet by hopping on well-placed stones. There are remains of old rope bridges along the trek but there are no bridges to be used on the way to the two falls. There are two bridges leading to a bicycle path and the Rattlesnake Ridge Trail. So, it may be smart to stay away from the luxury of a well-made wooden bridge for this particular trek.
Not long after the fourth creek crossing, the trail turns steep once again. Just before the path appears to level out, a side trail resembles a run-off opens up to the left and leads down to the base of the first waterfall. The fallen leaves obscure the slippery descent underneath so be careful. After visiting Lower Rock Creek Falls, the remaining trek is short to the upper falls (Above was copied from an article I previously wrote for the East Tennessean and can be found here. )
(Current as of Summer 2013)
Rattlesnake Ridge Trail
Distance: Approximately 8 miles round trip
Like Rock Creek Falls Trail, the start point for Rattlesnake Ridge Trail is located in Rock Creek Recreation Area near the campsite pay point. There is a $2.00 fee for day-use parking at Rock Creek but the beauty of the area is well worth the price. Rattlesnake Ridge Trail is approximately 4 miles in length from the campsite pay point to the beautiful vistas of Unaka Mountain Overlook, also known as Pleasant Gardens Overlook. The round trip distance for the hike is approximately 8 miles.
From the campsite pay-point, follow Rattlesnake Ridge and Rock Creek Falls Trails as they parallel Rock Creek avoiding the camping areas located nearby to the right. Rattlesnake Ridge Trail and a Bicycle Trail split from Rock Creek Falls Trail near the end of the camp site area, crossing a wooden bridge on the left. At the bridge, a trail sign announces Rattle Snake Ridge Trail’s split from Rock Creek Falls Trail. This is the actual trailhead for Rattlesnake Ridge Trail and the sign notates the trail is 3.6 miles in length one-way.
The trail splits again not long after crossing the bridge, with Rattlesnake Ridge Trail headed left and the Bicycle Trail headed right. Continue left on Rattlesnake Ridge as the path crosses the stream several times. The water is usually pretty shallow and it is possible to cross without getting wet. The path steadily climbs up the side of the ridge before cutting into Dick Creek Gap. Dick Creek Gap is an opening with 3 possible options. To the left is Dark Hollow Trail, to the middle is a forestry road, and Rattlesnake Ridge Trail is to the right marked by another trail sign.
From here the trail gets nasty steep for a bit, climbing through a dense rhododendron canopy. The trail eventually levels out a little and opens up to let the sun filter through. This is the general course of the trail as you wind your way up to Unaka Mountain Overlook with the path moving through dense shadowed forest, broken up by journeys along the mountain sides where the sun shines through. Eventually the trail opens up to a parking area for those who drove to the overlook by way of Unaka Mountain Wilderness Road.
The trail is for the most part easy to navigate but there are a few things to consider before hiking this trail. First, this trail is consistently uphill with portions being the unfriendly kind of steep. Towards the top of the trail, the undergrowth is starting to move in on the trail, sometimes making the path a bit tough to follow at certain spots. For the most part though, Rattlesnake Ridge Trail is well marked with blue spray-painted blazes located on intermittent trees along the path.
(Current as of Fall 2012)
Indian Grave Gap to Beauty Spot on the AT
Distance: 4.6 miles round trip
The hike to Beauty Spot from Indian Grave Gap begins with a steady ascent to beautiful views of the Blue Ridge. Along this section of the Appalachian Trail, flowers such as Goldenrod, gentians, and aster grow. Rhododendrons bloom in early summer and in autumn the oak, maple, and poplar leaves change their colors to hues of orange and red before giving into brown. While in the forest, the trail crosses a dirt road which was originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) and is known as Unaka Mountain Wilderness Road.
Not long after crossing Unaka Mountain Road, the forest opens up to let more light in as the trail leads through a youthful piece of forest still in renewal from a previous fire. Eventually the forest opens up onto a bald grassy ridgeline. The path follows the grassy ridgeline to Beauty Spot where stunning vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains await.In total, the hike to and from Beauty Spot from the trailhead at Indian Grave Gap is 4.6 miles. The way to Beauty Spot is all uphill for the 2.3 miles.
Most of the ascent is friendly but there are two long stretches of steeper inclines along the way. The trail is easy to follow, even when crossing Unaka Mountain Road. The grassy ridgeline opens up at a possibly tough navigation spot in the forest. The trail at this point makes a sharp right. Metal fence posts with a painted white rectangle mark the route the path makes as it crosses over Beauty Spot along the bald ridgeline. The white rectangular marks are known as blazes and they are used to identify the Appalachian Trail.
You will know you have reached Beauty Spot when looking right you see a good view of Erwin in the valley and also a nearby parking area. The hike back is going back the way you came (This information is taken largely from an article I previously published in the East Tennessean and a link to the article can be found here).
(Current as of Summer 2014)
To get to the trailhead from ETSU, from University Parkway as the road travels toward Elizabethton. Make a right on I-26 in the direction of Erwin. Take Exit 36, turning left onto Harris Hollow Road. From Harris Hollow Road take a right onto Main Ave. Stay on North Main Avenue until reaching Rock Creek Road also known as Highway 395.
Turn right on Rock Creek Road and stay on Rock Creek Road as it winds up into the mountains. The parking area for the hike is to the left just before the left turn for Unaka Mountain Road. You have gone too far if you pass a sign welcoming you to North Carolina. Also be aware the parking area is small and the destination is popular. The drive to this hike's starting point from ETSU is about 22 miles.
If you don't feel like hiking the couple of miles to see the vistas from Beauty Spot, you can drive up to Beauty Spot by taking a left onto Unaka Mountain Road. I have not traveled this particular route by car in many years and can not vouch for its conditions. In the past, I have driven a corolla to Beauty Spot parking spot on this road and besides a couple of rough spots the corolla managed. I recommend contacting the forest service before making the drive or just ask around, its a popular spot.
Besides being a popular spot for day-hikers, trekkers, and motorists, its also a good place for people to get away and make out & do rebellious things like they did in the good ole days when the tech wasn't so awesome.
Driving directions to the start point for this hike using Google Maps is linked here.
Iron mountain gap to cherry gap shelter on the at
Distance: 6.2 miles total, 3.1 miles one-way
The 3.1 miles the AT journeys from Iron Mountain Gap to Cherry Gap Shelter is through a mixed forest with some handsomely gnarled trees. In Spring and Summer, the usual suspects of wildflowers bloom within the forest canopy's shadows. Species like Trailing Arbutus, Galax, Mountain Laurel, Great Rhododendron, and Gentian are only some of the wildflowers to be found along the way.
Beginning from Iron Mountain Gap the trail briefly descends before a long but reasonable climb toward Little Bald Knob. Some time has passed since Little Bald Knob first got it's name and since that time the forest's encroachment has made the Bald part of the name a bit deceptive. Views from the knob exist through the forest.
However a small vista does open up along the AT as the route rounds just beneath Little Bald Knob's rocky hilltop. The opening for the view can be easy to miss on the way to the shelter, but is easier to spot on the way back.
From here the AT descends for about another two miles toward Cherry Gap and Cherry Gap Shelter. For the most part the descent down to Cherry Gap Shelter from Little Bald Knob is mostly reasonable with some steep moments.
After reaching the Shelter, the way back is the way you came, which means journeying back over Little Bald Knob back to Iron Mountain Gap. The ascent is a pretty reasonable climb with a few steep moments.
A possible difficulty beside the uphill, for this particular hike is that other trails intersect with the AT. Often these other trails can be as well-defined as the AT. This is in particular true in between Iron Mountain Gap and Little Bald Knob. The AT is well-marked with the White Blaze throughout this route and navigation is not much of a problem but just be aware of these intersecting trails.
Additionally, the forest floor and the spacing between the trees can confuse the AT on the ridgelines of this hike but in these instances the White Blaze also guides the way. There are possible stream crossings but they can be easily accomplished without getting wet. This hike is of moderate difficulty based on the 6.1 miles total distance and the mix of uphill and downhill.
Further Online Resources:
TEHCC: Indian Grave Gap to Iron Mountain Gap
TEHCC: Cherry Gap Shelter
(Current as of Winter 2014)
From ETSU, turn right onto University Parkway headed toward Elizabethton and Interstate 26. Turn right onto I-26. Stay on I-26 until reaching the exit for Unicoi, Exit 32. Turn left from the off-ramp onto TN-173.
At the Stop Sign, turn right staying on TN-173 as the road travels through the town of Unicoi. In less than 0.5 miles, turn left onto TN-107. Follow TN-107 for approximately 10 miles where a moderately-sized pull-off parking area will be on the right, near where the AT crosses Iron Mountain Gap. You will know you have gone too far if you find yourself going down the North Carolina side of the mountain on NC-226.
Driving directions to Iron Mountain Gap using Google Maps is linked here.
Red Fork Falls
Distance: Approximately 0.6 miles round trip
Most the waterfalls located in Northeast Tennessee are deeply influenced by the season and by the weather. Regardless of the water level, many of these falls remain distinctly beautiful, like the serene Sill Branch Falls. However, there are a few falls who are too big to fail like Compression Falls, Elk River Falls, and Red Fork Falls.
Red Fork Falls shares certain similarities with Compression Falls (Twisting Falls). That is the they both are a bit tricky to find by vehicle and both involve short undefined trails with some nasty bits of downhill. Navigation to the Red Fork Falls start point is detailed directly below in the driving directions section.
The short jaunt to Red Fork Falls begins from a small pull-off parking point along Unaka Mountain Road. The start of the trail is marked by a tree with a large red dot spray-painted on it.
The trail descends down to a creek. Initially, the short stint down the path is marked by trees that either have a red dot spray-painted on their trunk or a thin orange-red ring painted around their diameter.
The markings mostly end once the creek is crossed. Debris, fallen logs, and rocks have been placed as a means to keep from getting shoes soaked. About 10 yards from this creek crossing, Red Fork Creek is crossed, most likely without getting shoes wet by rock hopping.
From here the trail follows the creek, paralleling the left side of the many tiers that make up Red Fork Falls. It is important to stay aware and be careful on this one because the trail from this point on is more difficult and has been the source of injury and even a death.
The trail is not well defined and can be deceiving with rhododendrons creeping in to obscure the path, as well as openings and possible side trails leading one astray. Trees scarred with initials and promises of eternal love are a good indication that the path is near or under foot.
The footing can be slick from mud and rocks. There are brief feats of climbing down rocks and under branches or tree limbs, nothing terrible but just be aware. This is a there and back again hike, so the hike back up also involves slippery footing and some climbing.
Further Online Resources:
Waterfall Picture Guide
(Current as of Spring 2013)
From ETSU, turn right onto University Parkway. From University Parkway turn right onto I-26 headed south toward Unicoi. Take exit 32 and turn left onto TN-173. Stay on TN-173 as it turns right at the stop. Not long after turning right onto Unicoi Road (aka TN-173) turn left onto TN-107. Stay On TN-107 for approximately 7.7 miles before making a right onto Red Fork Road.
Red Fork Road becomes Unaka Mountain Road and a sign marks the turn for Unaka Mountain Road which might otherwise be easy to drive by. Upon making the turn onto Red Fork Road keep track of the mileage.
The pull-off start point for the hike to Red Fork Falls is located on the right side of the road, 1.2 miles from turning onto Red Fork Road. There is a small pull-off that might be able to accommodate a couple of cars at best.
There is a tree with an orange-red ring painted around it on one side of the pull-off, as well as a tree with a big red dot that marks the start of the hike on the other side of the pull-off. You've driven too far if you pass a home on the left with a wooden sign reading Wilderness Falls or reach the gravel surface of Unaka Mountain Road.
Driving Directions using Google Maps is linked here.
Limestone Cove Trail to Stamping Ground Overlook
Distance: Approximately 8.4 miles round trip
The trek to Stamping Ground Overlook from Limestone Cove Trail is approximately 4.2 miles one-way, or approximately 8.4 miles round trip. Most of the route is uphill and at times steep enough to be called nasty. Some of the steep sections are very rocky and prime terrain for breaking ankles, esp. coming back down the trail when the terrain is blanketed by leaves.
Stamping Ground Overlook from what I can tell is beginning to be reclaimed by the forest and the views are much more obscured than at Beauty Spot or Unaka Mountain Overlook. The views are still good but the photo taking might require some rambling through the bramble and rhododendrons. If you are looking for more wide open vistas than I recommend hiking to Beauty Spot or Unaka Mountain Overlook.
Having sold you against this trail let me begin by saying that this hike begins by following Forestry Road 4343 from the big parking area from the turn off of TN-107. This parking area can accommodate several horse trailers and the area often does, as the trail is popular with horseback riders as well. After a short hike, a forestry gate is reached. Continue on Forestry Road 4343 as it climbs upward. As the road levels out, the Limestone Cove Trail and the Dark Hollow Connecter Trail open up to the right. Follow the signs for Limestone Cove Trail. From here the trail ascends through dense forest eventually leveling out and opening up a little.
The Dark Hollow Connector Trail splits off to the right. The split is well marked with both paths having trail signs. Stay left on the Limestone Cove Trail as the path descends for a little bit not long after splitting from the Dark Hollow Connector Trail. The descent is only for a little way before the only stream crossing of the trek. It might be possible to rock hop this stream but be aware the stream is likely to soak your socks.
Not long after the stream crossing, the trail opens up and can be a bit misleading so just be on guard the path makes a sharp right-turned switchback heading back up the hill. From here just follow Limestone Cove Trail as it ascends up the mountainside through the forest. The trail is marked by yellow blazes.
Eventually the trail opens up, flattens out and curves left as Limestone Cove Trail ends at the Stamping Ground Trail. Once again both paths are marked by trail signs. Take a right onto the Stamping Ground Trail and follow it for the last half mile or so as it leads up to the overlook and a parking area for drivers traveling on Unaka Mountain Road.
From what I could tell, the best views where along the trail before the path flattened out, close to the parking area. This is a there and back again hike so the way back is the same route taken.
(Current as of Fall 2012)
From ETSU, merge right onto University Parkway. From University Parkway merge right onto I-26 headed toward Erwin. Get off of I-26 at Exit 32. From Exit 32 take a left onto TN-173. From TN-173, turn right onto Unicoi Drive / TN-173. From Unicoi Drive turn left onto TN-107.
Follow TN-107 for about 3.6 miles before making a right onto an unnamed road. Limestone Cove Recreation Area is on the left side of TN-107. The big parking area is on your left almost immediately after turning right onto the unnamed road from TN-107. Further information on Limestone Recreation Area can be found at the Cherokee National Forest Website.
Driving directions to Limestone Cove using Google Maps is linked here.