Dispatch from the Cherokee National Forest

Cherokee National Forest

By Lindsay Schlageter

The Cherokee National Forest spans the entire eastern state line of Tennessee, bisected in the middle by the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. It boasts great trails, wildlife, and some of the most biologically diverse temperate forests in the world.

The Bald River Falls lies between the borders of the Bald River Gorge Wilderness and the proposed Upper Bald River Wilderness.

Earlier this month, my colleague, Anders Reynolds, and I traveled to Tennessee to hike through the proposed Upper Bald River Wilderness in the southern Cherokee, near Tellico Plains. We were joined by Jeff Hunter and Caara Fritz of Tennessee Wild, and members of their “Meetup” group.

Jeff Hunter talks about a hunting camp that lies within this area.  Hunting and fishing will still be allowed when this becomes a wilderness area.

On the way out, we stopped at the picturesque Bald River Falls, on the very border of the existing Bald River Gorge Wilderness and the proposed Upper Bald River Wilderness. After snapping a few photos we headed to the trailhead. Within five minutes we hit the first stream crossing of the day; the water was high, but one could avoid soaking feet by rock hopping across. We helped each other along and then began our trek.

Anders Reynolds watches as folks cross the stream to begin our hike.

As we traveled into the rhododendron jungle, our guide, Jeff Hunter pointed out interesting plants, directing our attention to the subtle beauty of the forest, and sharing stories about the area. Jeff has a wealth of knowledge about the land and takes groups into the woods as outreach opportunities for the Tennessee wilderness campaign.

Lindsay Schlageter hikes through the preponderance of rhododendrons.

About three quarters of the way through our adventure we hit another stream, and this time the options included walking across a fallen log or taking on the knee high water -- despite knowing your shoes would be soggy the rest of the day. Anders went for the log crossing. I know my lack of balance and opted for wet feet instead.

Hikers venture into the knee high water, a little colder than wanted on a winter day.

The puddles in my shoes were soon forgotten as I got lost in the quiet of the forest. At the halfway point we discovered what makes all the stream crossings worth it. A beautiful waterfall awaited us. Capturing the spell, Jeff read an excerpt from “The Forest Unseen,” by David George Haskell about the history of the forest. Haskell's words brought different aspects of what we had experienced into perspective, describing how some of the plants had adapted over time.

The top of a waterfall that was a highlight of our hike.

Too quickly it was time to leave the woods, and we returned rather briskly to the trail as it was getting late and we wanted to beat the sunset. On the drive back to Chattanooga we discussed the wilderness campaign to protect this part of the Cherokee and brainstormed new ideas to bring to our coalition meeting the next day.

Tennessee Wild, along with other conservation organizations, business owners, local elected officials and members of the faith community, are working to designate nearly 20,000 acres of wilderness on the Cherokee National Forest. Tennessee Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker have introduced legislation in the last two congresses to safeguard this special place, but there was no time for a vote. We are hopeful the bill will be reintroduced in the Senate soon.