Tennessee’s Bald River Gorge


The Bald River tumbles through the heart of 3,700 acres of dense woods in the Cherokee National Forest’s Bald River Gorge Wilderness, a mecca for hikers, hunters, birders, and paddlers. Only part of the important watershed is protected, however, so Tennessee’s U.S. senators propose designating additional acreage for conservation. This wild trout stream cuts a deep canyon through the tangle of pine and Appalachian hardwood, then plummets spectacularly at the wilderness area’s boundary into the Tellico River. The popular kayaking watercourse soon crosses the Cherohala Skyway, where the now calmer, combined river meanders into the broad valley surrounding the town of Tellico Plains.

Tellico Plains, in turn, serves as base camp for the many recreationists, such as kayakers and fly fishermen, who enjoy the Tellico and Bald rivers. In fact, anyone driving the Cherohala Skyway as it snakes through the Cherokee and Nantahala national forests is having a wilderness experience of their own, as they are treated to views of the Unicoi Mountains and three different wilderness areas: Bald River Gorge, Citico Creek, and Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock. 

To enter the Bald River Gorge Wilderness, most hikers use the Bald River Falls trailhead. An easy 6-mile ramble rewards hikers with spectacular views into the gorge cut by the river, and opportunities to get close to several waterfalls.

Indeed, the Southern Appalachians contain the world’s most biologically diverse temperate forests.  The area, home to deer, black bear, wild turkeys, and even hogs,  also features a plethora of flora, including bright green mosses and, of course, plenty of rhododendron. The lands currently protected by wilderness designation—and those areas under consideration for protection—safeguard clean water for many Tennesseans.  Understandably, they also are popular with hikers, bikers, hunters, fishers, and other diverse recreationists. 

 To protect the entire Bald River Watershed, a coalition of elected officials, business owners, recreation enthusiasts, and conservationists is pushing for passage of the Tennessee Wilderness Act.  U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, Tennessee Republicans, have long championed this commonsense bill, which would add 19,556 acres of wilderness over six areas in the Cherokee National Forest in eastern Tennessee. The legislation includes protection for the 9,000-acre Upper Bald River Wilderness Study Area, which sits just south of the Bald River Gorge Wilderness.  This acreage contains portions of the popular Benton MacKaye, Brookshire Creek, and Kirkland Creek trails, frequently traveled by hikers and horseback riders.  The proposal also encompasses the headwaters of the Bald River, and three of its tributaries, protection of which is important for clean water and trout fisheries.

Pew, working closely with its many partner organizations in the state, hopes that Congress will act soon to preserve wilderness in Tennessee for future generations.