PRENTICE COOPER STATE FOREST TRAIL HEAD
Tennessee River Gorge Segment
Mullens Cove Loop
Distance: 9.8-mile loop. Trail is described counterclockwise.
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous
Elevation Change: 300 feet
Cautions: Some steep and rocky sections; periodic hunting closures (check Prentice Cooper State Forest web site); rolling hills contribute to a cumulative elevation change of 1700 feet.
Camping: Hemlock Branch Campsite at Mile 5.6 (4.2 for clockwise travel)
Topographic Map: Ketner Gap and Wauhatchie Quadrangles
Trailhead: Tower Drive (N35 07.964 W85 25.126)
Connection to Poplar Spring Section: Indian Rockhouse at Mile 9.3 (0.5)
Connection to Pot Point Loop Section: at Hemlock Branch campsite at Mile 5.6 (4.2) or at Snooper’s Rock at Mile 6.6 (3.2)
The Tennessee River Gorge Segment consists of two linear sections, Signal & Edwards Points and Poplar Springs, and two loops, Mullens Cove and Pot Point. Together, these sections make up 33.8 miles of trail currently open, but only the 6.9 miles of the Signal Point Section are considered part of the official Cumberland Trail. The Poplar Springs Trail connects the CT to the figure-eight of Mullens Cove and Pot Point loops. The trailhead for Mullens Cove is on Tower Drive. Highlights of Mullens Cove include spectacular, high overlooks of the Tennessee River Gorge and a natural rockhouse and stone door.
From the junction of US 27 and US 127 northwest of Chattanooga, continue northwest for 1.6 miles on US 127. Turn left on TN 27 and ascend the plateau, along the way passing where the Poplar Spring Trail crosses the highway at 6.0 miles from US 127. At 8.1 miles, turn left on a road marked only with a “Prentice Cooper Forest and WMA” sign. The mileage to the trailhead is 3.2 miles from this turn, but watch carefully for Prentice Cooper SF/WMA signs, as there are two more turns. One is more of a bear left and happens almost immediately. The other is a left turn at 0.1 mile. Shortly after this turn, the road turns to gravel and enters the State Forest and WMA. Continue to the trailhead, which is on the right and marked by a sign that says “Cumberland Trail Parking Lot.” There is a kiosk with a map and a log for hikers to sign.
Mile 0.0 (9.8) When you enter the gravel parking area, one trailhead is on the left (west) edge of the parking area. The other trailhead is behind you, across Tower Drive (south) from the parking area. This description is for a hike counterclockwise, so enter the trail at the west edge of the parking area.
The first part of the trail is flat and easy, passing through a pleasant forest on the plateau. This is a very good place for spring wildflowers and contains abundant laurel, rhododendron, and azalea, including the stunning orange Cumberland azalea (Rhododendron cumberlandense) a close relative of, and almost indistinguishable from, the famous flame azalea of the Smokies (Rhododendron calendulaceum).
Mile 0.5 (9.3) The trail crosses a logging road and then begins to descend.
Mile 0.75 (9.05) Reach Short Creek, a very seasonal creek, lovely when running in spring or icily wet in winter. If you catch the right combination of water level and warm temps, this creek offers some fun splashing. The trail follows the creek downstream a short way, featuring a lot of rock hopping. This is the only section where the trail can occasionally be difficult to follow, particularly in the fall when leaves are down. It is well-blazed, however, so just be sure look up periodically to find the blazes; blindly rock hopping can quickly take you off trail.
Mile 1.0 (8.8) The trail turns away from the creek and begins climbing, gently at first.
Mile 1.2 (8.6) Watch for a sharp left turn. It is double-blazed but still an easy turn to miss; just don’t cross the many logs lain across the false path straight. The trail climbs steeply from this point. Once you reach the plateau, the trail again rolls through scenic forest, dipping and rising to cross creeks and drainages.
Mile 2.9 (6.9) The trail reaches Haley Road, a 4WD road used by hunters and recreational vehicle enthusiasts. Turn right and walk a short distance (0.15 mile) down the road and then turn left onto continuation of the trail. This road/trail junction is clearly marked with double blazes and signs, in both directions. The next section contains a few short climbs of steeper-than-average grade.
Mile 3.6 (6.2) Watch for a sharp right turn, which is not marked by double blazes when last hiked.
Mile 5.0 (4.8) Cross beside/under a big boulder with an overhang. Views on the right begin to open up, especially in winter when the leaves are down, and you will know that you are nearing Mullens Cove Overlook.
Mile 5.3 (4.5) The 50-foot spur trail to the overlook turns to your right. Mullens Cove Overlook makes a wonderful lunch or break spot, as the view is lovely and it’s usually less sunny and crowded than the (admittedly spectacular) Snooper’s Rock Overlook.
Mile 5.5 (4.3) The trail appears to end in a washed out logging road, which may contain a small amount of water in the wettest seasons. Turn left and follow this eroded roadbed a short way, then turn right again. This is all well-blazed.
Mile 5.6 (4.2) Reach Hemlock Branch Campsite. A stream beside the campsite is the water source, but like all streams and creeks on this loop, it’s highly seasonal. Pack your water with you in all but the wettest season. And of course, treat any water you take from the creek. The trail passes through the campsite and then climbs a hill, switchbacking a couple of times.
Mile 5.7 (4.1) Reach a directional sign and the first junction with Pot Point Loop from the right. The two loops make a figure eight, so for the next bit of trail, the two trails coincide.
Mile 6.3 (3.5) Reach Tower Drive. A small parking area lies about fifty feet to your left, which is another access point for both loops. To reach this trailhead, you would continue down Tower Drive just over two miles from the Cumberland Trail Parking Lot where you started this hike.
Cross the road to follow the trail straight ahead, while still following both the Mullens Cove and Pot Point loops. Very soon, an access trail from the parking area comes in from the left.
Mile 6.6 (3.2) The second junction with Pot Point Loop departs to the right. Just after this junction, skirt another small parking area. This parking can be accessed from the larger lot on Tower Drive that you just passed, but the road connecting the lots is mostly used by off-road vehicles, as the road is steep and rough. As soon as you see Snooper’s Rock ahead, look for a small trail to the left. This is the continuation of the Mullens Cove Loop; it’s not as well-signed as other intersections. But first continue out to Snooper’s Rock.
Due to its proximity to a road, Snooper’s Rock is a fairly difficult place to find solitude, at least on fair-weather weekends. But the wide-open, panoramic view is one of the most spectacular you will find of the Tennessee River Gorge, with several bends of the river clearly in view. This is an excellent fall color spot, but is gorgeous in all seasons. The large rock bluff is a very spacious and relaxing break spot.
Leave Snooper’s Rock on the trail you noted earlier. This next section is quite scenic, with frequent views of the river opening up on the right, even in summer.
Mile 8.0 (1.8) Stone steps take you to the bottom of a rock wall. From this point, you are walking below the stone bluff, with rock walls and boulders on the left complementing river views on the right.
Mile 8.3 (1.5) The trail connects with a logging road for a short distance, leaving behind the river views.
Mile 8.5 (1.3) Begin a rather sustained climb; you gradually lost quite a bit of elevation along the loop.
Mile 9.3 (0.5) Reach Indian Rockhouse, a huge natural rock shelter.
Here is the junction with the Poplar Spring Section, which departs to the right. That trail will, along the Suck Creek Gorge Section of the CT, take you all the way to Signal Point, in 13.3 miles. To complete the Mullens Cove Loop, turn left and circle to the right behind the rockhouse to climb man-made steps through a natural stone door. The trail then climbs gently back toward Tower Drive.
Mile 9.8 (0.0) Exit the forest and cross Tower Drive back to the parking lot.
—Christy O’Flaherty, CTC Volunteer