Afternoon view of the Grand Canyon of Tennessee from Snoopers Rock. Photo Johnny Molloy
Prentice Cooper State Forest, situated in a big bend of the Tennessee River near Chattanooga, is a huge swath of wild land, below which is the Grand Canyon of the Tennessee, where the Tennessee River cuts a thousand foot gorge through the Cumberland Plateau. Nearly 40 miles of trails and additional primitive driving roads allow rewarding late fall visitation within the confines of the 25,000-acre state forest, especially when you factor in the leaves changing down there a little later than they do here in the Johnson City region.
I recommend a 6-mile there and back hike to Snoopers Rock and the Natural Bridge. Snoopers Rock allows a fantastic panorama of the Grand Canyon of the Tennessee while the natural bridge presents a more intimate display of God’s hand shaping the geology of our world.
You will first come to the large, wide and top notch vista at Snoopers Rock, where river gorge panoramas amaze. And Snoopers Rock is only .3 mile from the trailhead. You will then then pick up the Cumberland Trail, hiking the canyon rim and the stream valleys cutting their own chasms, eventually to reach Natural Bridge, a sturdy stone arch over which you hike.
Note: the state forest is closed to hikers during certain spring and fall hunt dates. Check with the state forest for these weekends before visiting. The dates are posted on the state forest website at www.tn.gov/agriculture/forestry.
This hike leaves the Snoopers Rock Trailhead. A white-blazed connector trail leads to left, easterly, from behind the trailhead kiosk. Take this single-track path downhill, rambling through hardwoods to quickly pass a small pond. Come along a small branch.
Reach a trail junction at .3 mile. Here, you meet the Cumberland Trail. The way to Natural Bridge turns right here, however keep straight and walk past the northbound Cumberland Trail before opening onto the expansive flat stone of Snoopers Rock, one of my all-time top ten Southern Appalachian names.
The views are inspiring as the name Snoopers Rock is intriguing. The Grand Canyon of the Tennessee River stretches both north and south as it bends out of sight, bordered by high bluffs dropping to steep wooded slopes falling to the waterway. Raccoon Mountain stands boldly across the river. The wide-open rock slab is about as fine of an overlook as there is.
Backtrack to the southbound Cumberland Trail, heading toward the Natural Bridge. Work your way out to the gorge rim. Look back toward the pale stone of Snoopers Rock jutting into the canyon. Turn into Muddy Branch Hollow, crossing normally clear Muddy Branch at .5 miles. Pay attention here as the trail goes on and off a steep roadbed. Climb back toward the canyon rim in oak dominated woods. It’s a long way down from here — 1,000 feet to the river!
The terrain is difficult, extremely sloped and rocky. Walking the path can be a challenge, building the trail must’ve been tough. Rock outcrops are abundant.
Turn into Ritchie Hollow, one of the larger coves in this gorge, at 1.2 miles. Hike a level bench, with outcrops and rock houses aplenty above you. Crossing the first major tributary of Ritchie Hollow, then bridge two more tributaries. The path is quite stony in spots. Curve back toward the Tennessee River, saddling alongside the canyon rim.
Cruise the edge of the maw of a gulf. Wintertime views are extensive along this wooded rim. If I had to be a tree, I would want to be one of these sturdy oaks perched here, along the brow of canyon.
You will reach the Natural Bridge at 3.1 miles. You will walk atop the natural bridge first.
A casual hiker might not even notice that they are using a stone walkway over a natural arch below. However, the Natural Bridge is signed. It’s not too hard to drop off the trail and get under the arch. It is down here you can appreciate the stone span that extends about 20 feet high and 40 feet wide — a squat, sturdy conduit.
This arch is a by-product of erosive process. Arches can be formed in numerous ways, including more violent, instantaneous means, such as rock collapse versus unhurried erosion by water. Arches have their own special terminology. The span of rock over which you walk, the actual natural bridge, is called a lintel. The flat part of this bridge, in this case, where the trail travels, is called the deck. From below you can look up at the span of the arch. This span is widest distance between the two arch pillars. The clearance is the highest point of the arch down to the ground.
Natural Bridge is but one of many highlights located within 25,000-acre Prentice Cooper State Forest. The preserve, named for Tennessee governor Prentice Cooper, was established in 1945, after the state bought subsistence farms, pasturage and forestland here on the Plateau. It was once hunting ground of the Cherokee Indians, who lived along the banks of the Tennessee River where Chattanooga now lies. Today, the state forest is managed for forestry and hunting, but also has one of the most spectacular sections of the Cumberland Trail.
Campers can use several trail accessible backcountry campsites in the forest, or car camp at Davis Pond and at the state forest entrance. Camping conditions are primitive.
To reach Prentice Cooper State Forest from Chattanooga, take US 27 to the base of Signal Mountain and the junction of US 27 and US 127, northwest of Chattanooga. Take US 127 north for 1.6 miles to TN 27 west. Turn left on TN 27 west and follow it for 8 miles to Choctaw Trail and a sign for Prentice Cooper Wildlife Management Area. Turn left on Choctaw Trail and follow it for .2 mile to reach Game Reserve Road. Turn left on Game Reserve Road and enter Prentice Cooper State Forest, where it becomes Tower Road. Keep forward on gravel Tower Road for 4.6 miles to the Cumberland Trail parking area on your left.