Cumberland Plateau Hiking Trail in Tennessee

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The Cumberland Plateau is home to some of the most lush and diverse forests in North America.
The Cumberland Plateau is home to some of the most lush and diverse forests in North America. (Image: Digital Vision./Photodisc/Getty Images)

For lovers of the outdoors, there are few better destinations than the Cumberland Plateau. Stretching 450 miles along the western edge of the Appalachian Mountains, the plateau is home to striking scenery, diverse wildlife and more hiking trails than can be explored in a lifetime. The Justin P. Wilson Cumberland Trail State Park -- usually referred to simply as the Cumberland Trail -- bisects the plateau from north to south, providing access to numerous other trails and some of Tennessee's finest state parks and natural areas.

A Work in Progress

The Cumberland Trail is unique in Tennessee in that the trail itself is actually a long, narrow state park. The trail is also a work in progress, and through cooperation between the Tennessee Departments of Environment and Conservation and the Cumberland Trail Conference, the trail is planned to extend 300 miles between Signal Point and the Cumberland Gap. At the time of publication, about 190 miles of the Cumberland Trail are open to hikers, and you can access segments of the trail through Cove Lake State Park, Frozen Head State Park, Piney Falls State Natural Area and Stinging Fork Pocket Wilderness Area, among others.

Northern Trail Segments

At the northernmost end of the Cumberland Trail, an 11-mile section, known as the Cumberland Mountain Segment, is open to hiking. This segment includes stunning scenery, including rocky ridge hiking with spectacular views of the Cumberland Mountain range to the north and the Powell River Valley to the south, but the terrain can be difficult at times. Access is available at the Tennessee Avenue trailhead in Lafollette and the Cove Lake trailhead in the Cove Creek State Park.

A little father south, the New River Segment offers 40 miles of open trail, and you can hike the entire stretch over a two- or three-day backpacking trip, or break off a smaller chunk for a day hike. This segment explores some of the most rugged and remote territory in Tennessee, including the summits of Lawson, Anderson and Cross mountains. The northern and southern trailheads to this segment are located in Cove Creek and Frozen Head state parks, and there are several road crossings in between where you can pick up the trail.

Southern Trail Segments

The 8.5-mile Piney River Segment parallels the Piney River and Duskin Creek over moderate terrain. The trail throughout this segment is shady and secluded, and highlights include several scenic river crossings and a short side trail that leads to a picnic area. You can access the Trail at the Piney River trailhead on Shut-In Gap Road and the Newby Blanch trailhead on Walden Mountain Road.

At the southernmost end of the Cumberland Plateau Trail, 7 miles are open to hiking in the Tennessee River Gorge. The Tennessee River Gorge Segment also connects to nearly 27 miles of additional trails, allowing you to take a much longer hike. The terrain ranges from easy to strenuous, and the views from the Snoopers Rock and Ransom Hollow overlooks are among the best on the trail. Access is available at the Signal Point trailhead and at two additional parking areas on Tower Drive.

Keep In Mind

Trail lengths and access points are subject to change as more of the Cumberland Trail is completed. Overnight camping is permitted along most of the trail. Designated backcountry sites are provided in some areas. Dispersed camping is permitted where designated sites are unavailable, and hikers are responsible for leaving no trace of their presence. In sections where the trail passes through a state park, hikers are required to register if they intend to stay overnight. In general, the only drinking water along the Cumberland Trail comes from springs and streams, and this water mus be treated or filtered before drinking.

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