Where: Cove Lake State Park, Campbell County
Distance from Knoxville: About 33.7 miles or 38 minutes
Distance of Trail: 4 miles
Difficulty: Short, but uphill.
The walk up to Devil's Racetrack has waterfalls and a wide view from the racetrack itself, a natural rock formation of jagged lanes. Wilderness purists may object to climbing a mountain only to hear sounds of Interstate 75's traffic in the valley below. Yet for people who like putting human projects like the interstate system in perspective, the Devil's Racetrack hike is divine.
It was June 7, National Trails Day, and Kayley, a seasonal interpretive ranger for Cove Lake State Park, was excited to see that two hikers, including me, had shown up for her guided hike.
We started at Little Egypt, a local swimming hole, and parked our cars by the side of a bend. The place has other names such as Triple Falls and the Blue Hole, but I prefer the name Little Egypt because it's the least descriptive. Make sure not to leave any valuables in the car if you park there.
Bruce Creek flowed through Bruce Creek Canyon, crashing down a series of waterfalls. Its sound overpowered the vrooming of cars and trucks on I-75 nearby. As charming as the falls and canyon were, they weren't natural. Workers had blasted the canyon out of the rock, not out of a desire to create a picturesque place, but instead as a safety measure to prevent the flooding stream from eroding the I-75's embankment. None of that took away from the stream's beauty.
A hemlock-tree smell filled the air. Kayley scanned the shallow water for crayfish, pointing out the lobster-like creatures as they crawled along the stream's bottom and darted backwards through the water.
As we left the creek and climbed higher, we heard the interstate's echoing sounds. "Wild pack of 18-wheelers," said Kayley, smiling, "I guess I'd rather have them below us and have a trail than have no trail."
A January fire, started by accident, had blazed through some of these woods. We could see signs of it, from charred logs to dead mountain laurels with brown leaves. A pine cone from the forest floor was black. After rubbing it in my hands, I noticed it created charcoal dust.
Kayley explained to us about the fire's effects on the forest: "On the one hand it's bad, but on the other hand it's good because it burns the undergrowth and provides nutrients in the soil."
At last we reached the top and saw the tall fins of rock that make up Devil's Racetrack's lanes. A tectonic plate collision had pushed layers of rock upward and turned them vertical. Water had worn away at the softer layers, leaving the jagged lanes of sandstone standing.
"Devil's Racetrack" was an old local name for the rock formation since the early 1900s. Around that time, place names suggested that the Devil owned all of the roughest landscapes. Maybe locals saw the lanes of rock and thought of the lanes of a racetrack. Only the Devil could have thought racing on such a crazy track would be a good idea. For anyone else, such a race would mean at least a few broken bones, if not death, by falling off the rocks.
We took a right and walked out to an overlook from atop a lane. A U.S. flag on a white plastic pole fluttered in the breeze and showed its colors against the sky. To the right, green hills rolled; below them, cars that looked from here to be the size of slot cars drove on the interstate. To the left were the little roofs of Caryville, Jacksboro, and LaFolette, and the puddle of Cove Lake.
"Having lived in Florida, I know this beats Florida," Kayley said from atop the sandstone lane. "I feel like I'm entering the Twilight Zone whenever I go anywhere without mountains."
"People ask me where I live," she said after we reached the bottom again. "They think I sleep under trees. They assume I spend all my time looking at slugs, which is not too far from the truth, but I do have paperwork to do." She noted that she actually lives in a house on park property, though one that frogs and birds visit.
"Hikers should know that it's easy to help out," she said. "It's easy to organize work days. It doesn't have to be a lot, just picking up that soda bottle by your car might be enough."
To get to Little Egypt, take I-275 North toward Lexington. (The interstate name will change from I-275 to I-75.) Continue past Lake City until you get to exit 134. At exit 134, take the ramp right for US-25 North and TN-63 East. In .9 miles, turn left onto Park Road. Stay on Park Road until it changes names to Loop Road. Then, turn left onto Shelton Hollow Road. On that road, which is a dead end, you'll find a curve in the road underneath tall hemlock trees. Park near the boulders by the right side of the road. From there, follow the dirt road that branches off from the bend. It'll lead you to the Cumberland Trail (CT).
Take a right on the CT to pass the waterfalls and climb uphill. The trail is in good shape, with the exception of a bridge that's missing a few boards. When you get to the top, take a right to walk out to the Devil's Racetrack overlook.
Like many of the hikes I've covered, this hike is part of the CT. Its route is detailed on the Cumberland Trail Conference (CTC) website, even though the organization originally behind that website no longer exists. Without going into the politics of why the organization ended, I thank the CTC for all of the work that they've done. Their website's much longer Eagle Bluff hike includes the hike mentioned above and more. To see it go to cumberlandtrail.org.