Hiking Beyond the Smokies: On the Rocks of Black Mountain

Distance from Knoxville: 63.9 Miles or about 1 hour and 13 minutes

Distance of Trail:

Black Mountain Loop: 1.7 miles

Black Mountain Cumberland Trail:

3.8 miles

Difficulty: Easy if you're just taking the loop trail or taking the Black Mountain section of the Cumberland Trail downhill. Difficult if you're taking Black Mountain section of the Cumberland Trail uphill.

From atop Southern Overlook, grains of sand twinkle amid the sandstone conglomerate, a kind of rock with little pebbles trapped in it. Puddles in the rock are like tidal pools. Southern Overlook itself is like a hardened beach, ending at a point—and beyond it, an ocean of bluish hills and valleys. There are few human structures below us besides barns and farmland. They look as unimportant to my life now as fish deep beneath the sea. I'm happy to be here with my girlfriend Yvonne, alone on the beach. We lie together underneath a short pine. I look up at its brown, obvious female cones and its more subtle light red male ones.

She feels a tiny white pebble trapped in the rock with her hand. When I tell her that sandstone with pebbles trapped in it is called conglomerate, she says, "Not a very romantic name, is it?"

Reddish, grayish, jagged, smooth, the rocks here are everything. They form shapes like cobras and sphinxes. The rocks seem bare in places, but on second glance, they are full of little decorations like splashes of lichens, blueberry bushes, and even some pines and maples.

Beyond us, right off of the bluff, the summer green treetops dominate with each of their different leaf designs. Among them are leafless dead trees, snags, standing corpses about to fall. It resembles downtown Knoxville, with its living shops and offices complemented every once in a while by vacant ones. Yet I know the snags house birds and other creatures.

Yvonne opens her eyes and stands to look out at the view. A distant low sound rumbles.

"That might be thunder," she says, "We should probably go."

"We need to do the whole loop," I say. "I've got a column to write."

As we speed-walk through the forest, the rumbles get louder and more thunder-like. By the time we leave the forest and come out to an access road, lightning flashes. She screams and we duck in a ditch for a few minutes, until we work up the courage to walk back to the car.

To get to Black Mountain, take I-40 West and get off at Exit 329. While driving on I-40 west, you may notice that Black Mountain is beyond the exits for more popular areas like Frozen Head. Still, Black Mountain appeals to people who like to rappel off its bluffs and boulders, as well as people who love the view from it.

After getting off the Exit 329 Crab Orchard ramp, take a left. The route from here curves around often, but keep to the main route, Battown Road. Turn left at the Justin P. Wilson Cumberland Trail sign and head up the narrow Black Mountain Road to the trail's parking lot. From there, you can take a paved trail to the kiosk at the main trail's official starting point, above Dr. Gill's springhouse, a structure that he used for cooling food. Dr. Gill, a Cornell mineralogist, kept a summer home here in the 1920s. When Dr. Gill's wife sold the land to a Methodist-run school, the deed stated that it would be "a place of study, meditation, work, and divine worship," and also "a wild life preserve for both animals and plants." It remains all of those things to this day, although the work part of it is mostly carried out by the people who repair Black Mountain's radar tower.

Black Mountain Loop and the trails that split off from it are all well-documented by the Cumberland Trail Conference website cumberlandtrail.org, with one exception. When my girlfriend and I visited Black Mountain, we crossed the stream by the springhouse and walked on what appeared to be an eroded abandoned dirt road. I wouldn't recommend it. Because it's not an official trail, trees that fall across it don't get cleared.

The trail blazes marking the trail's beginning are white for the Cumberland Trail and yellow for the loop trail. Following these blazes, you'll first come to the sign on the left for Southern Overlook over the remote farmland of Grassy Cove. There are actually two routes to overlooks past that sign, a hiker-made trail onto a bluff and an official one with a bridge, leading to a far more spectacular view.

After that, you'll find the Cumberland Trail with its white blazes, branching off to the left of the Black Mountain Loop Trail. The Cumberland Trail heads downhill through a narrow passageway and some tall bluffs and boulders that form a rock city, albeit not as decorated and crowded as the one at Lookout Mountain, then it goes downhill to Tennessee Highway 68. Given that it's nearly all downhill, it's pretty easy if you have a car waiting for you at the bottom. Uphill, it's more strenuous.

If, instead of taking the main Cumberland Trail, you stay to the right, you'll keep going around the Black Mountain Loop to the Northern Overlook. Then you'll get to Black Mountain Road, as we did. The trail, marked by a Cumberland Trail sign, continues on the other side. If you are desperate to get back, like we were, you can take a right on Black Mountain Road to go back to the parking lot.