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Hike to Double Falls has numerous highlights

Johnny Molloy • Apr 4, 2013 at 10:50 AM

Spring can be a wet time — witness the rain and snow we’ve had this last blustery March. However, the precipitation has its advantages, namely filling our mountain streams with water, making waterfalls — well, fall.

Moreover, they don’t just fall like autumn’s leaves gliding to the earth. This time of year — in spring — waterfalls crash, they roar, they splatter and splash, creating misty vapors that refract spring’s brilliant sunlight, sometimes even showing off rainbows.

For a fine waterfall, check out Double Falls at Pickett State Park, on the Cumberland Plateau at the Kentucky state line. The Sheltowee Trace will take you there. And you get a bonus waterfall — Crystal Falls — near the hike’s beginning.

The whole hike to Double Falls makes for a 9-mile there and back. But if that is too long, within one mile from the trailhead the Sheltowee Trace passes Crystal Falls, a natural arch, and a rock house, enabling a highlight reel of a two-mile trek.

The scenery continues with a walk along a cliff line above Thompson Creek, offering rim rock vistas before taking a side trail to Double Falls. Beyond Double Falls, the Sheltowee Trace enters Kentucky where it heads north practically to Ohio.

The only major elevation changes occur when dropping to Double Falls. Otherwise, trail distance is your main challenge. Give yourself ample time and you will be well rewarded. Leave the trailhead on a single-track path, immediately passing under a transmission line.

The hike shortly reaches a rock bluff along the trail — one of literally thousands of rock bluffs, cliffs and overhangs on the Cumberland Plateau, contrasting greatly with our nearby Appalachians, where overhangs are rare. Begin to swing in and out of small hollows feeding Thompson Creek. Hemlocks crowd these hollows, along with magnolia, black birch and other moisture-loving trees that occupy the valleys of this geologically rich land.

At 0.5 mile, pass the Hidden Passage Loop Trail. This hike stays with the Sheltowee Trace. The Trace passes under a rock shelter with a bench and reaches Column Arch. This small arch, not spectacular by Cumberland Plateau standards, still merits attention. Look for a six-foot column on the edge of a rock overhang. Minerals in the column have helped Column Arch resist erosion.

You soon enter a large, multi-strata rock house, with Thompson Branch cutting into the lowest part of the rock house. The overhang is deep. A massive boulder connects the top and bottom of the rock house. You can squeeze behind the boulder through the back of the rock house. This is the Hidden Passage. Over time, part of the rock shelter collapsed, creating a corridor inside the rock shelter through which the Sheltowee Trace passes.

The Hidden Passage leads from the rock house and beyond to a side trail leading right. Take this path downhill to reach a 20-foot high, two-tiered veil of water, Crystal Falls, before reaching Thompson Creek. Its delicate flow creates veils of water descending in unison.

The Trace swings around to the top of Crystal Falls and stays surprisingly close to the rim of the ever-deepening Thompson Creek gorge, crowded in vegetation below. Be careful, the drop is a doozy.

After walking along a bluff line, you climb to the top of the valley rim. Reach a sandstone slab outcrop at mile 1.3. From here, hikers can look up and down the gorge. The Trace continues past the outcrop in typical Cumberland Plateau upland forest. Oaks are omnipresent, mixed with pines. Dogwood and holly are common understory trees. Ahead, more rock bluffs and a series of rock houses keep the hiking interesting and certainly different from the trails in the Johnson City area.

At 2.0 miles, the trail passes under another rock shelter where a bench lies in the darkness of the overhang. Water seeps from beneath this shelter. The trail passes underneath a TVA power line at 2.1 miles. Beyond this point, backcountry camping is allowed inside Pickett State Park.

The Sheltowee Trace stays along the gorge rim and is often open to the sun. Prescribed burns followed pine beetle infestation and left the forest depleted in places. At 2.6 miles, curve into a small rhododendron-choked streamshed bordered in rock houses, bridging it at 2.9 miles. The disparities are great between the dark rhododendron thicket and open areas atop the Plateau rim.

At 3.4 miles, the trail passes under a curving, cathedralesque rock house. The overhang is a Cumberland sandwort habitat protection area. This rare plant only grows in a few locations under rockhouses untrammeled by human feet.

At 3.9 miles, reach the side trail to Double Falls. Drop toward Thompson Creek, passing alongside an eroded cliff line before switchbacking to a large flat and campsite at 4.4 miles. This valley is rich with wildflowers in spring — trout lily, dwarf crested iris, rue anemone and more.

The Double Falls Trail then crosses Thompson Creek on what may be a wet ford at higher flows. Water flow here is a double-edged sword — if Thompson Creek is flowing high, the falls will be bolder, but if the flow is high then the stream crossing will surely be a wet one. Consider taking your shoes off and walking barefoot across Thompson Creek.

Enter a rhododendron thicket and work uphill along a tributary of Thompson Creek. The rumble of Double Falls echoes in a rock house before you actually see the falls tumbling into its sandstone amphitheater, reached at 4.5 miles.

This two-tiered drop starts with a wide 10-foot descent followed by a narrower 15-foot drop. Double Falls, while not the highest or boldest or most picturesque cataract around, still makes for a good destination, and is but one of many highlights on this fine spring, fall and winter destination. Don’t tarry too long at Double Falls, it is 4.5 miles back to the trailhead.

To get to the trailhead from Jamestown, TN., near the Kentucky state line, take US 127 north for 2 miles to TN 154. Turn right on TN 154 north and follow it for 11.8 miles. The Pickett State Park entrance will be on your left. Continue north beyond the entrance, dipping to a bridge over Thompson Creek. Climb from the creek then look right for a parking area atop the hill a half-mile from the park entrance on the right.

For more information: Pickett State Park, 4605 Pickett Park Highway, Jamestown, TN 38556, 931-879-5821, www.tnstateparks.com.

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