We all have that one special place that feels like our own personal hideaway, a place to get away from the worries and angst of life. As a child, it may have been a backyard treehouse, or perhaps a secret fort behind the shrubs of the flower garden. Now it may be a hammock on an isolated beach, a secluded corner in your favorite coffee shop, or a swing hidden in the woods. For many, the great outdoors offers all the comfort and solace we crave after a long week at the office. We can’t wait to get out in the wild and enjoy a secluded walk along our favorite trail or watch the sunrise from our favorite mountaintop.
Outdoor recreation has been booming in the past several years, contributing billions to state and local economies near scenic areas. While the thought of millions of Americans enjoying the outdoors, exercising, and stimulating economic growth across the United States’ more rural areas is great, as with most things, it does also have a negative side. Many parks and national forests are pushed to the limit. Campgrounds are overflowing, trails erode due to overuse, and law enforcement is strapped. We find ourselves jostled through crowds just to try and snap a picture at scenic overlooks. What used to be a private sunset now is shared with a dozen others who light up the sky with the glow of their phones.
While this is more than true of many of our national parks such as the Smokies or Grand Canyon, there are still those parks which harbor the sense of wonder and isolation the first explorers must have felt when they blazed the earliest trails across the nation. Obed National Wild and Scenic River is one of those special places. Here you can paddle for hours down waterways flowing untamed by navigation systems or dams without seeing another soul. Venture deep into the woods along the trails and hear nothing but the screech of eagles in the gorge below. Climb a route along the cliffs and feel nothing but the beating sun and the cool wind across your face.
The Obed River flows from Crossville, Tennessee (located off I-40 on the way to Nashville) down into its namesake gorge on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau as it tumbles and roars its way to the Emory River. Framed by rock cliffs hundreds of feet high, the sandstone gorge is reminiscent of its slightly-more-famous neighbor to the north, Big South Fork. Here, however, the crowds are even thinner, the trails sparser, and the roads almost non-existent.
National Wild and Scenic Rivers are a rare thing in the eastern states, with the majority of them existing in the wilds of large western territories such as Alaska, Oregon, and Idaho. Our state’s only entry into this national system was established by Congress and President Gerald Ford in 1976 and covers more than five thousand acres stretching across two counties. While this may sound like a small area, over forty-five miles of streams are protected within the national park’s boundaries. Much of the surrounding landscape is protected by the Catoosa Wildlife Management Area and the Cumberland Trail State Park.
Reaching the park is tricky, as there are only a few main roads which reach the gorge itself and provide a starting point for paddling treks. Your best bet is to first stop by the park’s only visitor center, located about twenty minutes away adjacent to the courthouse in downtown Wartburg. The small station is home to helpful rangers, several interpretive displays, and an area in which to watch the park’s beautiful video. If you’re unfamiliar with the area (as we were ourselves until recently) it’s definitely worth your while to watch it. You’ll surely be surprised at the abundance of things there are to discover in this little-known park. The park’s two main areas are easily accessed from downtown Wartburg, although they are a good thirty-minute drive from each other.
TN 62 leads to the park’s northern spur along Clear Creek. Pull-offs along the river allow paddlers to launch from the Lilly Bluff Bridge and ply the waters down to its confluence with the Obed itself just a couple of miles away. A parking lot shortly after provides access to several hiking trails which lead to many scenic vistas. The Lilly Bluff Overlook is by far the best vantage point in the park for those seeking a memorable view. Venture beyond on the Point Trail, 1.9 miles of well-graded footpath which climbs through a smaller gorge, through beautiful forests, and past several geological features such as a spectacular stone arch. The rocky spires at the end make a secluded resting spot to enjoy the views and the wind.
Catoosa Road leads from downtown to the Nemo Bridge area, home to the park’s only campground. This is where the park ends as the Obed empties its waters into the slightly larger Emory River, which is bound for Kingston and Watts Bar Lake beyond. The bridge makes a great spot to enjoy the view or fish. A picnic spot nearby is a great spot to enjoy a leisurely lunch after a stroll along the Emory River Nature Trail. This one-mile loop offers great scenes of the river and an up-close look at several species of rare wildflowers which grow in the area. Here also you can tackle two portions of the Cumberland Trail, the 2.6 Emory Gorge section, or the much longer Obed River section. Stretching over fourteen miles along the river’s south bank, the trail has been nicknamed “place of a thousand steps” due to the huge number of rock stairs one must ascend as it climbs up from the gorge.