Hiking Beyond the Smokies: Spectacular Scenery at Upper Piney Falls

Location: Piney Falls Class II Natural-Scientific State Natural Area

Distance from Knoxville: 68.7 miles, 1 hour and 13 minutes.

Hike Length: About 2.5 miles if you do the full loop.

Difficulty: Easy for the most part, with a few steep and rocky bits, especially if you're walking a dog on a leash.

I'd long considered the hike to Upper Piney Falls to be short and easy. Others, as I learned this time, might not agree.

Yvonne and Zeke joined me for my hike to Upper Piney Falls in Rhea County. Yvonne, my girlfriend, loves hiking with me, even though her only pair of shoes isn't designed for it. Zeke, my dog, is a mutt, possibly pit bull and black lab. He never learned to heel because I was too lazy to teach him. Still, he hikes with me often.

It was rattlesnake season, and some of the trail would be rocky. Rattlesnakes tend to stay in rocky places. So we kept Zeke on his leash.

I'd loaded my cargo pants with my pencil, my pad, and my voice recorder, ready to take notes or record my voice at a moment's notice.

"You should use the notepad," Yvonne said, "If you spend the whole time talking to yourself, you'll get on my nerves. Maybe I should take Zeke so you can have your hands free." I agreed.

She reconsidered after falling on her butt.

"Could you please take Zeke!" she shouted. "He's dragging me through the mud!"

It was a good decision for her. We took a left at a sign that said "Bottom of Upper Piney Falls." The path down became steep and rocky. Zeke's approach was to avoid fighting gravity and just run down as quickly as possible, which made sense on four legs. Although I had to put my other hand out for balance at times, the walk down felt doable, if awkward.

"Hey, slow down!" said Yvonne behind me. I turned around and saw that she was struggling for something to hold on to. Finally, she got on all fours and crawled. She never could have handled the walk down this path with Zeke.

Once we got to the bottom, though, the hike already seemed worth it. We came to a jumbled-looking cliff with cracking layers. Ferns, grasses, and a tiny maple grew from the cracks and ledges. The sandstone layers showed many colors: gray, reddish tan, and even green in spots from moss. Tiny drops fell from the cliff. In one mossy place the drips seemed to be everywhere, with each drip falling at its own pace.

Hemlocks and rhododendrons, some of them shadowy against the bright sun, framed the 80-foot Upper Piney Falls. At the waterfall's bottom, the water roared like a jet engine while a gentle mist swirled up from where the water hit a rock. A falls-bow formed in the mist. A trail curved back behind the waterfall. I handed Zeke to Yvonne, then walked behind the falls and felt the mist on me.

After handing Zeke back to me, Yvonne walked behind the falls to experience it for herself. Zeke yanked on the leash so hard he pulled it from my hand. Free at last, he sprinted to the falls, jumped up on Yvonne and licked the drops of water from her face. I yelled at him, and after a while, he headed back.

"Well, that was refreshing," said Yvonne. "That water feels great, especially on a hot day."

Upper Piney Falls is a good day hike with spectacular scenery, but better if you're not trying to walk a dog on a leash.

To get to this hike from Knoxville, take Interstate 40 West toward Nashville and get off at exit 347 for US 27. Turn left on South Roane Street. Continue onto US 27 South/North Gateway Avenue. Turn right onto TN 68/N Piccadilly Avenue. Turn right to stay on TN 68 N. Take a sharp left onto Firetower Road and turn Right to stay on Firetower Road. The small gravel parking area for Piney Falls has only one small sign, so be on the lookout for it.

There appear to be two paths, but take the one with the gate. After crossing a stream, you'll find a kiosk that does not include any maps or information on it at present. Fortunately, other hikers have written messages on its wooden surface, giving advice for hikers. It's the only helpful graffiti that I've ever seen. For the first stretch of the trail, the path is wide and easy to walk.

Keep going straight. At a junction, painted signs point to the base of Upper Piney Falls to the left and the top of Upper Piney Falls to the right. The trail is a loop, so either way will take you to both places. If you want to do what we did, take a left.

The trail here gets narrower, taking hikers down the part that made Yvonne crawl on all fours. You'll then pass a steep dirt side trail to the left that goes to Lower Piney Falls' top, although there's no route to the bottom. We did not risk climbing down it with Zeke.

Walk along the cliff wall to get to Upper Piney Falls. If you want to make the loop, you can go around the back of Piney Falls and climb to its top. The route would not have been safe with Zeke on his leash, so we didn't do it. It's so steep that hikers have to hold on to a rope. Also, it would have involved fording a much deeper stream than the one we crossed at the beginning.

If, instead, you want to go back the way you came, like we did, make sure to watch for the trail signs on the way back, especially the double blaze marking a sharp uphill turn. The trail appears to keep going forward along the cliff, but that route won't take you back.

For more information on this hike and Piney Falls Class II Natural-Scientific State Natural Area, go to the area's website at tn.gov