Sunday, January 13, 2013

Big Ridge State Park

It was 70 degrees yesterday, and although it kept drizzling and threatening harder rain, I went out to Big Ridge State Park anyway. I couldn't waste the good weather, and a little rain never hurt anyone. Besides, I have an awesome rain hat.

Big Ridge is only about ten miles away from my house, so I don't know why I haven't gone before. I hadn't visited the park since I was a kid. To get there, take Tennessee exit 122 off I-75; if you're coming from Knoxville, turn right off the interstate, otherwise turn left (away from Clinton/Oak Ridge). Drive 12 miles without turning anywhere and you'll see the Big Ridge sign on the left. The office is closed on the weekends, but there are maps available to take.

I grabbed a copy of the official Big Ridge brochure, which has a simple map, and a copy (actually two, because I didn't realize they were almost identical) of a more detailed map and directions. I was sitting in my car looking over the maps when I noticed a guy heading toward me, so although I doubt he would have bothered me, I drove off anyway just in case. When you're a woman hiking by yourself, the fewer people who know where you're going to be, the better (obviously that doesn't mean people you know).

I wasn't sure where the trailhead was, but I found it pretty easily. There's a big parking lot in front of the park office. If you drive to the end of the parking lot, near the water, you'll see a road running to the left of the lot. The trailhead is just across the road; there's a big sign and a posted map. I parked, put on my pack and rainhat even though it wasn't raining at the moment, and set off. Then I remembered to run back to my car and get the maps I'd just picked up.

My goal was to hike a five-mile loop. If you care enough to look at the map I linked to above (it's a pdf), you can follow along: start on Lake Trail, cross the Big Ridge Dam, turn left onto Dark Hollow Trail West, turn onto Big Valley Trail and follow it until it splits, take the Lake Trail branch and head back to the dam and then to the trailhead. That's exactly five miles. Only I didn't realize until I actually got there and was looking at the map that there's a loop within this loop that's called Ghost House Trail. I tried hard to figure out a way to walk that entire loop without backtracking or hiking more than five miles, and I couldn't. So I ended up taking the inner half of the Ghost House Trail loop, which meant that I inadvertently missed being able to visit the site of the old ghost house. Apparently the house is long gone but there's an old cemetery which is supposed to be haunted.

I set off on Lake Trail, which was muddy since it's been rainy most of the week, but which was in good condition and well-marked. That was true of all the trails at Big Ridge, incidentally. I was really impressed by how well they're marked, not just blazes but lots of large, readable signs. There's even a sign indicating that Dark Hollow Trail East is a dead end.

It was a brisk, easy hike to the dam. The dam is small and you can walk across it. There was a couple fishing from a boat on the other side of the dam, and we waved at each other. Then I turned onto Dark Hollow Trail West.

The trail followed along the edge of the lake--this is Norris Lake, but the opposite side of the lake from the part I can get to from the Norris Watershed. The water was low despite the rain, which left the red mud banks bare. I found this strangely fascinating and kept taking pictures, most of which I ended up deleting when I was processing them this afternoon.

Because of the drizzle, I thought I had the trails to myself. Unfortunately, I soon caught up with a couple with a little white dog. They were going too fast for me to overtake without a lot of effort, but too slow for me to be able to hike at my usual pace. I dawdled and took more pictures to give them room, since if there's anything worse than having to stay behind another group on the trail, it's having strangers start crowding you when you're hiking. But no matter how slowly I went, I kept catching up. When we reached a switchback going around a little inlet of the lake, the man said to me, "Want to go on ahead of us?" So I think they were slowing down on purpose so I could go around. I thanked them and stopped long enough to pet their little white mop-dog, which was only white on top--it was nothing but mud on its legs and tummy. Then I passed them and sped up to put lots of space between us.

I hiked fast and didn't take too many pictures. The trail here was mostly level, following alongside a creek that flowed down into the lake. Most of the year it's probably gorgeous, but in winter there wasn't a lot to see. I did startle a bird of some kind, maybe a pheasant? It burst out of a clump of underbrush in a clatter of wings, which made me jump.

Finally I came to the intersection and took Big Valley Trail. And almost immediately it got steep. Really, really steep. I felt like Frodo and Sam in the LOTR movies, going up and up and up, although fortunately at the top I didn't get ambushed by a giant spider. I had to stop to rest every so often, which was a good opportunity to take pictures. If I'd been with someone else, I would have sworn that I was only stopping to take pictures, not resting.

Up, up, up.

I enjoyed the climb, actually, partly because I like pushing myself a bit, partly because there was a cool wind blowing in my face that kept my glasses from fogging over. (I'm going to be getting contacts again soon, but I keep forgetting to make an eye doctor appointment.) At the top of the ridge I stopped to listen.

A far-off dog barked, and I heard the distant drone of a speedboat. Then even those sounds faded and there was nothing but silence and the occasional bird call. Bliss. On the way down--which was just as steep, and treacherously muddy so that I actually went slower on the descent than I had on the ascent--I stopped to listen to the silence every so often. Not that I needed to rest or anything.

I took the western half of the Ghost House Trail, which meandered through a much flatter area with at least one creek winding through it. The trail kept crossing the creek on various bridges, and for some reason I felt compelled to take a picture of every single bridge. They were all made of wood, and the wood was extremely slick from the rain. Even this one, though, which looks like it would collapse under a sparrow's weight, was completely sturdy.

While I'd been on the ridge, the drizzle had returned and it had gotten very dark. But the sun started to come out while I was on Ghost House Trail. It cheered me up--not that I was down or anything, but I was starting to get tired. At one point a pine had come down over the trail and hadn't yet been cleared away. I climbed over and decided to take a break, sitting on the damp trunk and drinking most of a bottle of water. I had brought my good Thermos full of water too, but ended up not needing it (possibly because I'd drunk my weight in iced tea at lunch before heading out to hike).

<--The thing that looks like a folded handkerchief sitting on the log is my map, which almost fell apart from hard use, rain, and sweat. I like to look at a map while I hike if it's convenient. Also, is that rain hat awesome or what?

It wasn't until I reached Lake Trail again that I realized I'd missed the Ghost House graveyard. Then I saw the sign for Norton Cemetery and thought that was it. I set off to see it. It's at the top of a small hill near the lake, although of course when the people were interred there was no lake. Norris Lake was created by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s, and all the residents were forced to move. I was surprised, though, that the graveyard seemed to have been in use right up into the 1920s. There were a lot more stones that were worn to illegibility or which had possibly never been carved, though, which argues that the graveyard had been in use for a long time. I don't know much about the history of the area. Apparently in October they have guided night hikes where the guides tell ghost stories, and I totally want to go to one of those this year if I can.

After that it wasn't far back to the dam. By then I was getting pretty worn out. I've been walking almost 2.5 miles almost every night since December, in an attempt to keep in shape for warmer weather, but there's a big difference between walking on pavement and hiking. Plus, I'd worn a new pair of wool-blend hiking socks I'd gotten at Target, and they just weren't thick enough. The bottoms of my big toes and a couple of other places on the bottoms of my feet were getting pre-blister sore from lack of cushioning. So although I'd had a great time and was very pleased with the hike, I was also glad to get back to my car.

I'll definitely be coming back to Big Ridge frequently this year.