HEISS MOUNTAIN RD TO RETRO-HUGHES ROAD
Three Gorges Segment
Distance: 9.5 miles one-way
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Elevation Change: 1,000 feet gain and 1,000 feet loss
Cautions: Ford of Little Possum Creek
Camping: Little Possum South Campsite at Mile 3.2 (6.3), Little Possum North Campsite at Mile 7.1 (2.4)
Topographic Map: Soddy Quadrangle
Southern Terminus: Heiss Mountain Road (N35 20.754 W85 10.501)
Northern Terminus: Retro-Hughes Road (N35 24.173 W85 11.021)
The Possum Creek Gorge Section links with the Soddy Creek Gorge Section on the south and the Rock Creek Gorge Section to the north. These three sections constitute the Three Gorges Segment, which has 30.7 contiguous miles of the Cumberland Trail. The Possum Creek Gorge Section’s southern terminus is on Heiss Mountain Road, which is also the northern terminus of the Soddy Creek Gorge Section. From there the Cumberland Trail descends into the gorge of Big Possum Creek, climbs out of the gorge to the top of Hughes Ridge, descends into the gorge of Little Possum Creek, then climbs again to the top of the plateau at Retro-Hughes Road, which is the northern terminus for this section and the southern terminus for the Rock Creek Gorge Section. Highlights include views from overlooks, deep river gorges, rock formations, and impressive waterfalls and rapids.
The southern end of this section is accessible from TN 111. From US 27 north of Soddy Daisy, ascend the Cumberland Plateau on TN 111 and proceed a total of 5.0 miles and exit onto Jones Gap Road, which overpasses TN 111. Or reach this exit on TN 111 from US 127 in Sequatchie Valley just north of Dunlap; exit and turn left on Jones Gap Road to cross over TN 111. Immediately turn right onto Heiss Mountain Road, a paved dead-end road that parallels TN 111; you’ll see a small store/truck-stop at the turn. Proceed 0.5 mile on Heiss Mountain Road to the end of a guardrail on the left. Two signs mark this location, one saying “Cumberland Trail State Park” and another pointing up the road you have just come down saying “Roadway Walk to Hwy 111 Crossing.” (If you follow this second sign, you will be southbound on the Soddy Creek Gorge Section.) A few steps beyond the first sign is the beginning of the Possum Creek Gorge Section with a kiosk that has maps. Parking is available along the side of the road, which has very little traffic.
The northern end of this section is also accessible from US 27. Continue north from TN 111 3.0 miles to Bakewell. Or from the southern-most stoplight in Dayton (at Walmart), follow US 27 9.8 miles south to Bakewell. At the traffic light, turn northwest onto Retro-Hughes Road.
After 1.0 mile, the road veers right and ascends the Cumberland Plateau via a series of sharp curves. Proceed a total of 7.0 miles from US 27 to the trailhead on the left signified by three wooden steps and a sign “Cumberland Trail.” Parking is on the right side of the road where a 5-step wooden staircase and another “Cumberland Trail” sign mark the southern trailhead for the Rock Creek Gorge Section; there’s a large gravel parking lot with a kiosk.
Mile 0.0 (9.5) From the Heiss Mountain Road Trailhead, enter the forest and descend past huge boulders to a bridge across the West Branch of Blanchard Creek at 0.1 mile. A waterfall upstream of the bridge can be significant after a rainfall. Descend gradually, cross a logging road, then cross a small bridge over a tributary of West Branch. Follow the main creek downstream on a hillside, past rock houses on your left.
Along this hillside you may see large-flowered skullcap (Scutellaria montana), a diminutive member of the mint family that grows only in northern Hamilton and Marion counties and has been declared endangered by both Federal and State authorities. It’s 12 to 20 inches high with soft velvety leaves and a square stem covered in small, soft hairs. In May and early June, several blue and white flowers appear at the top of the plant on short stalks arranged along a single shaft. Because of its endangered status, the CT has been routed to avoid known patches of this plant. Before construction, a trained botanist from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation was sent to check the proposed trail route; any route that threatens the plants must be changed.
Mile 0.7 (8.8) The East and West Branches of Blanchard Creek converge on your right. The East Branch is acidic from former strip mining that washes iron and sulfur into the creek, turning the rocks below the confluence a rust color. (Do not drink water from this creek; later on, water can be taken from Big Possum Creek above its confluence with Blanchard Creek and from Little Possum.) A waterfall is less than 100 yards downstream but is very difficult to reach; only experienced off-trail hikers should attempt a view of this falls.
The trail veers left from the creek and ascends Bare Point.
Mile 0.9 (8.6) From Bare Point, proceed southwest through a pine forest. Descend switchbacks on a rhododendron-covered slope that can be spectacular when the plants bloom in May. Drop through a dark forest of large hemlocks and pass a high rock face on the right. Turn left and descend to the Big Possum Creek Bridge, a 60-foot FRP bridge (fiber-reinforced polymer).
Mile 1.4 (8.1) Cross the bridge over Big Possum Creek and ascend steeply to an old narrow-gauge railroad grade. The railroad was likely used to haul timber out of the gorge.
Mile 1.5 (8.0) To the left, the railroad grade continues upstream 550 feet to the site of a former railroad bridge over Big Possum Creek. Note the remains of two concrete bridge supports in the stream. Turn right at the junction with the railroad grade and follow it downstream for 400 feet. Turn sharply left off the grade and ascend to the base of a rock escarpment below Hughes Ridge, named for the Hughes Family. Bear right to continue downstream, parallel to the escarpment. In winter, be aware that icicles sometimes form on the cliffs above and could pose a danger to hikers passing below.
Mile 2.0 (7.5) At a faint intersection, a rough, unmaintained route to the right called “Lain’s Lane” heads downhill and in less than 0.1 mile passes a spectacular rock face containing a large shallow room. The slope below the lane is covered with the rock that evidently fell from the face of the escarpment. Beyond this formation, the lane descends another 0.2 mile and intersects the railroad grade. (Lain’s Lane is named after its re-discoverer, the late Mike Lain of Oak Ridge, a former Smoky Mountains Hiking Club president and long-time Appalachian Trail maintainer.) From the faint intersection, ascend via two switchbacks to the top of Hughes Ridge; this end of the ridge is known locally as “Perkins Point.” Meander through pine forest to the northeast side of the ridge where there’s a view across Little Possum Creek. Descend gradually via curving turns to a side trail on the left.
Mile 2.7 (6.8) Follow this yellow-blazed side trail 100 feet to an impressive overlook of the Tennessee River Valley with the Appalachian Mountains beyond. From the side trail, descend via a wooden staircase next to a rock face and then via switchbacks for a total of 500 feet. The trail curves north around the east end of Hughes Ridge, and then heads northwest across a rocky slope above Little Possum Creek. This moist north-facing slope has numerous wildflowers in Spring.
Mile 3.2 (6.3) The Little Possum South Campsite, with room for two or three tents, is located slightly above the trail to the left. The easiest way to obtain water is simply to continue on the main trail. Cross a steep, rocky slope, and then descend to Little Possum Creek. Purify all drinking water.
Mile 3.4 (6.1) Cross Little Possum Creek on a 70-foot FRP bridge and ascend 200 feet, cross an intermittent stream, and approach the base of Stack Rock.
Mile 3.6 (5.9) As its name implies, Stack Rock is a tall cylinder-shaped formation of layered sandstone. To the right of Stack Rock, climb 33 steps up a rock and wooden staircase to a broad bench. Here a side trail leads 30 feet to the top of Stack Rock with views of Hughes Ridge across Little Possum Gorge. (Exercise caution atop this rock.) From Stack Rock, ascend gradually via switchbacks and a long side-hill cut. Cross a seasonal stream.
Mile 3.9 (5.6) Ascend a 7-step wooden staircase to a strip mine bench. Turn sharply left onto the bench (it looks like an old road) and proceed upstream, well above Little Possum Creek, with little change in elevation.
Surface coal mining operations in the late 1940s and 1950s generally involved cutting a “bench” on the side of a mountain, exposing the coal, and pushing much of the overburden down the mountain. This method produced a distinctive “high wall” that follows the elevation of the coal seam around the mountain. Coal under the mountain exposed by the bench cut was mined using augers, which bored into the seam and drew the coal out the same way a wood drill brings out shavings. After 1967, regulations required that benches and high walls be restored to the approximate original contours of the mountain. This particular area, although not restored, has recovered somewhat since mining operations ceased.
One of our goals in the design of the Possum Creek Section was to follow the creeks as closely as possible. But along this particular stretch, the practice of disposing the overburden by simply pushing it down the slope made it impossible to achieve this goal. The overburden consists of shale—soft, finely stratified sedimentary rock that formed from solidified mud or clay and that can be split easily into fragile slabs. From the bench down to the water, this material lies at its “angle of repose” (the steepest angle at which a sloping surface of loose material is stable). Our attempts to find a route through this shale closer to the creek were futile because of the constant struggle to avoid sliding. Finally we decided a sustainable trail could not be built here and settled upon placing it on the bench itself.
After traversing the strip mine bench, descend very gradually.
Mile 5.0 (4.5) The trail comes to a break in the cliff wall at the edge of the gorge. This cleft is called “Ed’s Break” for its discoverer—Ed Sonder of Oak Ridge. Ed was a member of the small team of hikers assembled by CTC founder Rob Weber in 2000 and asked to designate a trail route through the Possum Creek gorges, which the CT now follows. Descend through rhododendron thickets.
Mile 5.1 (4.4) Descend a rock staircase to Little Possum Creek Falls (aka Imodium Falls). A short and very steep side trail leads about 100 feet to the base of the falls. (To prevent injury and erosion of this fragile area, do not attempt any other route to the bottom.)
To the few expert kayakers that have the skills and courage to negotiate the Class IV and V rapids in this creek, the gorge is extremely challenging but not impassible when there’s enough water. This waterfall is a Class V drop that can only be successfully descended at just the right water level and at a particular place on the lip of the falls. Upon approaching it from upstream, kayakers have said they felt like they should have taken a dose of the popular anti-diarrheal drug, Imodium™.
Continue upstream along the main trail, and in 150 feet you’ll see an illegal campsite close to the top of the falls. Once verdant and covered with wildflowers in spring, this glade has been defiled with a fire ring, rock easy chairs, and charred wood; nothing lives on the trampled, blackened ground. There are only two legal campsites on the Possum Creek Gorge Section: at Mile 3.2 (6.3) and at Mile 7.1 (2.4) and even there, all backpackers should practice Leave No Trace principles (www.lnt.org).
From the falls, continue along Little Possum Creek with its numerous Class II-III rapids. Never straying far from the creek, the trail passes through a beautiful forest of hemlocks, then joins a gravel road.
Mile 6.1 (3.4) Turn left onto the road and in 350 feet cross Little Possum Creek on a concrete bridge. 100 feet after the bridge, the trail turns right off the road at a blazed signpost. This is a private road; other than this crossing, you are not permitted to walk the road in either direction.
Over the next mile, the trail ascends and descends gently. At first it passes through a hardwood forest containing beech, maple, tulip poplar, oak, persimmon, and dogwood and then, as it nears the creek, rhododendron and hemlock become more prevalent.
Mile 7.1 (2.4) A sign on a tree with the letters “CS” announces a side trail on the left leading 100 feet to the Little Possum North Campsite. The campsite has four designated tent sites, each marked by a green metal blaze on a nearby tree. Water is available from Little Possum Creek. Again, purify all drinking water.
After the side trail to the campsite, continue 350 feet to Hughes Branch; you can step across this small tributary of Little Possum.
Mile 7.2 (2.3) 180 feet beyond Hughes Branch, turn right onto an ATV lane that immediately fords Little Possum Creek. It’s usually possible to cross the creek on rocks and remain dry. Take care, however, because some of the rocks are covered with moss and can be slippery. Following rain, it could be necessary to take off your boots and roll up your pants to avoid getting wet. Never try to cross this or any stream if the water is above your knees.
After crossing Little Possum, follow the ATV lane straight ahead and slightly uphill for 320 feet. Turn sharply left off the lane, ascend the bank, and re-enter the woods. Keeping on the side of a hill, the trail winds around the east side of a low-lying area. Billie Smith told us that this area once had a small community called “Old Pennsylvanie” where people supported themselves by making wooden barrels from trees in the surrounding forest.
Mile 7.8 (1.7) Reach the top of a ridge between Little Possum Creek and Coalbank Branch, a tributary of Little Possum. Descend from the ridge and pass through a grove of large hemlocks.
Mile 8.1 (1.4) The trail makes its closest approach to Coalbank Branch. From here, the trail lies within a 300-foot-wide corridor of State-owned land. Respect the adjacent landowners’ rights and stay within this corridor. Proceed northeast, generally parallel to Coalbank Branch, through pine forest with occasional open areas that may contain patches of briar. Continue a gentle ascent through a young forest of pine and hardwoods.
Mile 9.5 (0.0) Reach the end of the Possum Creek Gorge Section at paved Retro-Hughes Road. The Rock Creek Section of the Three Gorges Segment begins across the road to the northeast, at the sign at the top of the wooden staircase. US 27 in Bakewell is to the right, 7.0 miles down Retro-Hughes Road.
–Warren Devine, CTC Board Member, and Carol Devine, CTC Member, were responsible for the trail design in Possum Creek Gorge and led numerous construction crews.