Monday, January 23, 2017

Trail Review: Hidden Passage Loop at Pickett State Park

Tennessee Waterfall, Pickett State Park
Double Falls at Pickett State Park - click to enlarge
Trail Map - click to enlarge

Trail: Hidden Passage Loop
Location: Pickett State Park; Jamestown, TN
Trail Length: Apprx. 9.5 Miles
Difficulty: Moderate with Strenuous stretches
Solitude: Good during my visit, likely moderate to busy during warm season weekends


(NOTE: review from a hike in early summer, 2016) In an effort to make my way through some of the best backpacking treks on Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, I recently finished an overnighter at Pickett State Park. Typical of the region’s landscape, the Hidden Passage Loop offers waterfalls, rock formations, gorge overlooks, and the picturesque flora associated with the mountainous territory of East Tennessee. This particular hike is perfect for a quick overnight trip, and the expanse of this entire state park would be worthy of an extended stay with water access, boat rentals, cabins, well-maintained camp sites, and other shorter trails offering unique landscapes and rock formations including a stone arch (which I regret to say I didn’t get a chance to see on this trip.) The hike is moderate with a few difficult sections. Provided your visit does not coincide with a drought, the hike provides numerous places to cool off in streams, waterfalls, and other water features.


Mountain rock shelter
Rock Shelter - click to enlarge
The small parking lot for the Hidden Passage Loop is roughly a half-mile past the Park Office. After you’ve parked, enter the trail via the trailhead at the far right of the parking lot. Once on the trail, hemlocks, laurel, rhododendron, magnolias, and plan life suited to thrive in these misty, rugged hills are quick to greet you. It is an immediate immersion into the landscape. A modest bluff overlook is within the first quarter-mile or so of the hike. After only 0.45 miles of hiking, you will reach the trail’s loop split. Hang a right here and soon you will come upon the trail’s namesake, the Hidden Passage rock formation. There is a rustic bench positioned under a large rock overhang. If visiting in the summer, you can feel a significant temperature difference just by standing under the cool stone formation. Shortly after the rock formation, you will make your way to a short spur trail descending to the base of a two-tiered twenty foot waterfall, Crystal Falls.

small waterfall tennessee mountains
Crystal Falls - click to enlarge
Crystal Falls makes for a nice respite with a small, natural wading pool collecting in front. It is pretty and picturesque, but modest in its scale and the volume of water flow (at least this was the case during my mid-spring visit.) Once you return from the fall’s spur trail, you will wind your way above it to hike along the rim of the gorge created by Thompson’s Creek. As you twist along the bluff’s terrain, you will have many opportunities to gaze into the gorge, though the visibility below was limited due to all of the dense, green spring foliage during my hike. At 2.0 miles, you’ll pass under a large rock shelter with another bench for relaxing in the cool shade. As I hiked in a moderate rainfall season, some underground water source seeped from beneath the shelter offering my dogs a very welcome watering hole to cool off in. Soon after this shelter at 2.05 miles, you’ll pass under TVA power lines, and one guidebook says that backcountry camping is allowed after this point if one wanted to improvise a campsite (though a well-maintained campsite with fire ring and a close stream is available and likely what the vast majority of hikers will choose to use as did I.)

Continue along the gorge rim mostly in open air before dipping back into the wooded density of more laurel and rhododendron. Rock houses and boulders lie throughout this section.


dog and tent backcountry campsite
Dedicated campsite near Double Falls - click to enlarge
At 3.85 miles you will reach the spur trail to Double Falls as well as the campsite. The spur descends the side of the boulder-strewn bluff to reach a lush, misty camping area at 4.4 miles near Thompson’s Creek. As mentioned, there is a large improvised stacked stone fire ring, some downed trees and other logs that can serve as benches, and plenty of room for multiple campers to pitch shelters (there are also plenty of trees for hammock campers.) Because the area is set in a low valley of sorts within the misty mountains, my single wall tent was soaked with condensation after a refreshingly cool but very humid night.

mountain creek
Small water feature by campsite - click to enlarge
Just past the campsite is Thompson’s Creek, which you will have to cross to reach Double Falls (look for the blazes if needed). During my trek, the water was low enough that dry patches and stones allowed for passage with almost no thought necessary. During high rainfall times, however, it might involve fording the creek. You will wind your way through more mountain foliage aand along a side stream of Thompson’s Creek until you reach Double Falls at mile 4.6. The lower fall offers a narrow stream that drops just in front of a large, picturesque rock. The area below offers a great space to cool off for those willing to scramble down to the falls’ base. The falls and campsite are, by far, the highlight of this trek.


backpacking dogs
Dogs at Thompson's Overlook - click to enlarge
Once you backtrack the spur trail to Double Falls, you will ascend a moderately difficult climb to reach Thompson Overlook at 5.7 miles. The views are nice and allow one to peer along the wider rim of the gorge to the southeast. From here you will hike some mild inclines and descents in and out of wooded areas with a few distant water features, overlooks, and more boulders and rock formations. You will cross the TVA power lines again at mile 7.3. At 7.7 miles, you’ll reach Thompson Overlook road. Take a right here and proceed along the road until you reach the Group Camp area full of shelters, recreation spaces, and other park amenities. Keep looking to your left along the forest edge to pick the trail back up at mile 8.1. You’ll head back into the woods a pass along a bluff ridge with more rock formations throughout. At 8.9 miles, you’ve completed the loop. Take a right to retrace the spur trail pack to the trailhead and parking area.


Pickett State Park on Google Maps
Pickett State Park Website
Pickett State Park Phone Number: 931-879-5821

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