Hiking Beyond the Smokies: The View From Twin Rocks

Location: Cumberland Trail State Park, Piney River Area

Route: Twin Rocks and Flat Rock Loop

Difficulty: Moderate

Length: About 2.1 Miles

We hike up through mountain laurel country to a place strewn with boulders. Two craggy sandstone pillars, the rocks for which Twin Rocks Nature Trail is named, tower above us, showing their piled rock layers. A ladder climbs up one pillar. A wooden bridge, which looks dramatic against the sky and trees, runs from the shorter pillar to the taller one.

"That bridge scares me more than the ladder," my father, rare plant expert Dr. Larry Pounds, says. "I'm not sure it's stable."

"Well, I'm going up there," I say.

The ladder is damp but not slippery. The wooden rungs are gray like the old boards of a henhouse, but they still support hikers well. As if to take the similarity to a henhouse even further, a cage of meshed wire, painted blue-green, boxes the ladder in on all sides. I put one foot above the other, climbing the rungs as easily as a child on a playground.

At the top, the wooden bridge between the rocks is narrow and upward-slanting, making it look dangerous at first glance. Chain-link fencing on both sides, painted the same shade of blue-green protects me from falling. The bridge stays stable as Dad snaps his picture from below. It shows no sign of giving way. Walking on the bridge and looking at the view gives me a rush of adrenaline without leaving me in terror.

The view across Piney River Gorge from Twin Rocks is breathtaking and worth climbing a steep wooden ladder to reach. Although the Cumberland Plateau, to the West of Knoxville, is called a Plateau, the word "Plateau" does not do it justice. Here at Piney River Gorge, as elsewhere, rivers have whittled deep gorges into it. The gorge-side isn't a ridge of peaks like the Great Smoky Mountains, but it's not flat either. It rises, carpeted in trees. Its slope bends forward and backward, like an unmade blanket on a diagonal bed, before the slanting shape of the gorge's other side overlaps the view of it. Against the sky, the gorge's edge forms a simple, elegant slightly-bumpy line.

Unlike some other views from the Cumberland Plateau, which reveal pastures, strip-mines, towns or clear cuts, the view from Twin Rocks shows little sign of human tampering. The present-day trees replaced logged ones, and humans built the fence, but the view feels wild. I can look out from here and be, for a moment, oblivious to the obsessions of any human being other than myself.

I babble my pointless musings into a hand-held recording device, talking for my future self's benefit. Other animals seem more interested in the present. Songbirds warn me off their territory. A fence lizard in a camouflaged rock-gray coat of scales doesn't say a word. A breeze rustles through the treetops around me. Here atop the twin rocks, I'm surrounded by the leaves of the forest canopy on either side, with rock, sometimes covered in lichen, sometimes in moss, below my feet.

The fenced-in area continues from the bridge to make a blue-green pen around the exposed part of the second twin rock. Beyond the far edge of this fence, trees begin to take over as the second twin rock slopes back down.

Now, I see Dad, standing against the fence and smiling. To get up here, he must have braved shrubs, poison ivy and a steep climb with no help from ladders or stairs, all in order to avoid one narrow bridge that looked unsafe. For all his squeamishness about heights and narrow bridges, few other things bother my Dad.

"I don't know why they built the bridge here," says Dad. "Theatricality, I suspect."

Theatricality defines the trail construction in the Piney River area of Cumberland Trail State Park, especially the bridge and ladder at Twin Rocks, which are safe, if dramatic. Nature in the area can also be theatrical. Piney River is a great place for spring wildflowers.

In the summer, visitors can enjoy wading and swimming in the clear waters of Piney River. The Piney River Area in Cumberland Trail State Park is well-developed and includes a picnic tables near the trailhead. Still, judging by online trail-reviewing websites, the Piney River area in Cumberland Trail State Park often gets confused with Piney Falls, a different, equally gorgeous place to be covered here in a future "Not in the Smokies" column.

To get to the East Piney River Picnic Area and the start of the trail, take I-40 West from Knoxville. Keep left to continue on I-75 South toward Chattanooga. Then, take Exit 60 on to TN 68 toward Spring City. Take Highway 68 through Spring City for about 1 mile. Turn left on Shut-in Gap Road, just before the bridge over Piney River. Park at the picnic area. On the other side of the road is the head of the trail.

The Twin Rocks Nature Trail branches off from the main Cumberland Trail at about .1 miles in. It's an uphill yet short walk. Take a left at the next junction to get to the overlook. From the top you can hear the Piney River below you. After climbing back down the ladder and walking back from the overlook trail, take a left and walk until you reach a different part of the main Cumberland Trail.

Turn right on the main Cumberland Trail. At the next junction, take the Flat Rock Loop Trail to your left. It will take you down along the Piney River to the flat rock for which the trail is named, a perfect place for sunbathing on hot summer days before cooling off in the water. Flat Rock Loop follows an old railroad grade and contains reminders of the area's logging past, including the remains of the abutments of a bridge. Once the loop takes you back to the main Cumberland Trail, keep left to head back to the picnic area.

The hike described here is just one route hikers can take in the Piney River area of Cumberland Trail State Park. For maps and other routes, check out the Cumberland Trail Conference's guide to the area at cumberlandtrail.org.