Hikers should indeed feel they are in the “Heart of the Cumberlands” while walking the Lawson Mountain Trail—and will give their own hearts a good workout on the many ups and downs.
From its southern terminus at the Cave Branch Trailhead on Smoky Creek Road, the trail heads up Cave Branch then climbs about 1,300 feet to a rocky ridge that divides two watersheds. After a pleasant ridgetop stroll, the trail descends 750 feet to Bowling Branch, where two small ponds show old evidence of beaver.
After a short walk through healthy stands of laurel, walking fern, and ground cedar, the trail ascends 840 feet in less than a mile to Lawson Mountain’s summit ridge. After a mile walk along an old road used by 4-wheelers and ATVers, primarily on weekends, the trail steeply, then more gradually, descends 1,200 feet through the Lick Creek watershed to New River and the Norma Road Trailhead.
Trail highlights include an extensive hardwood forest that provides spring and summer serenades by many canopy-dwelling birds, great fall colors, tumbling mountain streams (in season), interesting rock formations, spring and summer wildflowers, far-reaching views at several points, and the possibility of elk sightings. You will also traverse a few areas that are recovering from coal strip mining years ago and may see evidence of current timbering near the trail corridor. The forest will eventually reclaim the newly cut areas as it has for more than a century.
Access to both the Cave Branch and Norma Road Trailheads is off Norma Road in a sparsely populated area of Scott County. To reach them from I-75, take Exit 141, State 63, and go west towards Huntsville for 11.2 miles to left-turning Norma Road. It’s signed and is directly across from a closed service station. If coming from the west, turn off US 27 onto State 63 and go 9.2 miles to right-turning Norma Road. Follow Norma Road 7.8 miles south through the historic community of Norma to the Norma Road Trailhead on the right, the northern terminus for the Lawson Mountain Section. Note the wooden steps and “Cumberland Trail” signs on both sides of the road; the Anderson/Cross Mountains Section begins on the left. Parking space for several vehicles is at the graveled pull-off area with kiosk on the west side of the road just before the trailheads.
To reach the southern terminus at the Cave Branch Trailhead, continue from the Norma Road Trailhead for another 2.3 miles to Hembree’s Store on the right at Smoky Junction. Turn right immediately past the store onto Smoky Creek Road, which may not be marked. Cross a bridge over New River and follow Smoky Creek Road 4.8 miles from the store to the Cave Branch Trailhead on the right. A gravel parking area just past the trailhead along Cave Branch will hold several vehicles. The trailhead for the Arch Mountain Section toward Frozen Head State Park is directly across Smoky Creek Road and across Smoky Creek that parallels the road. Total distance for a shuttle between the Norma Road and Cave Branch Trailheads is about 7 miles.
Alternative access to the Lawson Mountain Section is up old Bowling Town Road, 4-wheel and/or high clearance required, that would allow an approximately 4.5 mile hike to either trailhead with a shuttle vehicle. At 2.2 miles on Smoky Creek Road from Hembree’s Store turn right on Bowling Town Road (signed). It quickly becomes a grass track with a house on the right. Bear left and enter the woods. Go 0.5 mile up this occasionally steep and rough forest road, crossing Bowling Branch several times over concrete culverts until an open area is reached just before a deep, washed-out creek crossing. Park here and walk up the road about 1.2 miles to an old pond with evidence of past beaver activity. Turn right off the road onto the CT heading for the Norma Road Trailhead, or continue up the road for another 0.3 mile and turn left off the road onto the CT heading for the Cave Branch Trailhead. Bowling Town Road might be difficult-to-impassable in winter or a wet spring.
CAUTION: Drive both Norma and Smoky Creek Roads with care. They are hilly, narrow, and winding and have both paved and unpaved segments, some rough. When traveling either road, you are likely to meet heavy logging trucks, even on weekends.