Friday, May 3, 2013

Norris Dam State Park

When you pull up Tennessee on Google Maps, you'll see lots of green, and you'll see lots of state parks, natural areas, wildlife management areas, national forests, and national parks.

So far, I had been to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, but I hadn't been to any of the state's 53 state parks. So this week, my brother and I headed out to Norris Dam State Park to do a little hiking.

Norris Dam - from west overlook
The most prominent feature of Norris Dam State Park is the dam itself. Norris was the first dam constructed by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Completed in 1936, it is 265 feet high and holds back the Clinch and Powell Rivers to create Norris Lake - a reservoir with 33,840 acres of surface water and 809 miles of shoreline. The dam provides electricity to the region and controls downstream flooding.

The visitor center is located on the east side of the dam. It was closed when we visited, but I've heard it has some good information about the construction of the dam. The view of the dam from the visitor center is okay, but the best views are from the west side overlook. Watch for a gate on Highway 441 (Norris Freeway) and a sign for TVA Overlook. I couldn't find it marked on the map, so I created a Google map with the location marked.

The park covers a pretty large area around the dam (4,038 acres according to their website) and has lots of trails for exploring. We did two fairly short hikes while we were there.

First part of Clear Creek trail
First we took Clear Creek Trail, which starts at the Grist Mill (you can park your car in a small lot in front of the mill and there's a sign for the trail right up next to the mill). The trail wanders along the creek through some very pretty wooded areas. You start out walking along a channel that supplies water to the mill, then you progress down towards Clear Creek. The creek is aptly named - the water is crystal clear and you can see right to the bottom.

Woodland Wildflowers
We had read about some guided wildflower walks that were offered on this trail earlier in April. There were still plenty of woodland wildflowers blooming at the end of April. We saw several small waterfalls (spillways of small dams, actually, I think), a couple nice picnic spots, and the remains of an old mill along the trail. When we got to the intersection with High Point Trail, where there's a big blue water treatment tank, we crossed over to Lower Creek Road, which runs right along the creek, and followed that back to the Mill. We saw lots of butterflies in the sunny area around the road.

The Clear Creek Trail was narrow and muddy in places, but seemed pretty easy. There were a couple spots where we had to walk through a little water, so boots are a good idea.

People who don't want to take on the trail but would like to see Clear Creek can drive on Lower Clear Creek Road. It's a gravel road that looked in good condition when we were there. There is one spot where the creek crosses the road, but it's shallow and the road is paved there. We saw cars crossing it with no trouble.

Grist Mill

Lower Clear Creek Road (shallow water crossing)
Although the Clear Creek Trail starts in the Park at the Mill, you soon cross over into what's called the Norris Watershed area. There's a separate trail map for out there, which we didn't have at the time, so we turned back while we still had our bearings.

After doing the Clear Creek Trail, we took a lunch break (Cracker Barrel in nearby Lake City, just a few minutes drive from the center of the park).

Songbird Trail
After lunch, we did the Songbird Trail, which  is a loop of about two miles that runs along the Clinch River. The path is wide and surfaced with packed gravel. It seemed to be popular with runners and exercise walkers.

The view of the river was nice and, true to it's name, I did see and hear plenty of songbirds. It was a nice walk and would be a good option for anyone who wants a nice, firm, flat path, but I preferred the woodland creekside setting of the Clear Creek Trail.

One other trail that I had seen mentioned online as good for wildflower viewing is the River Bluff Trail. It wasn't clear from park maps how to get there. I was hoping to be able to ask someone at the visitors center, but since it was closed, I was out of luck. I looked it up after I got home and found an article about the trail in the Knoxville newspaper. There are directions in the article, and I found a TVA site that had a link to a map with the trail head parking location.

Clinch River from Songbird Trail
Norris Dam State Park Trails Map

Norris Watershed Trail Map

TVA River Bluff Trail and Trail Head Location Map

Trails system information

TVA Trails, with driving directions and trail maps

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Hatfield Knob Elk Viewing Area

I'm really late in making this post, but this was such a neat thing to see that I figure better late than never. 

Early last November my brother and I took a trip to see the Hatfield Knob Elk viewing tower. 

Although Elk were once native to Tennessee, they disappeared from the state about 150 years ago. Beginning in 2000, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency started reintroducing small populations of Elk into controlled areas in TN. Hatfield Knob, near LaFollette was one of those areas. The viewing tower was constructed by TWRA volunteers.

Getting there was a little bit of an adventure. It was one of those trips when you are never really sure you're in the right place. The directions on the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency website seemed a little vague:

"To reach Hatfield Mountain, drive north out of Lafollette on Highway 25W approximately seven miles to the top of the mountain. Turn left at the red gate located at the top of the mountain (just before the road starts to break over the mountain and go down the back side.) Proceed on the gravel road approximately 3.1 miles to a fork in the road. Take the right fork approximately 1.4 miles to the parking area."

Entrance Gate
The red gate is a metal gate and there are big brown and yellow signs for Sundquist Wildlife Management Area Hatfield Knob Wildlife Viewing Area just on the other side of where you're supposed to turn off the road. The gravel road you take doesn't look like much more than a driveway and there are some warning signs posted at the entrance about mining operations, but there's a small "Elk Viewing Area" sign with an arrow pointing you in.

It's about a 4.5 mile drive in to where the viewing area is. It felt like a lot longer than that. The road is gravel and dirt and was pretty heavily rutted in places. We were driving in an SUV with good sized-tires and pretty high clearance, I wouldn't want to try the drive in a regular car. The speed limit posted on the way in was 10 mph and you really couldn't do any more than that if you wanted to - and given the narrowness of the road, I was happy to poke along. But because we were driving so slow, it took us almost on hour to drive the 4.5 miles. 

Mining Operation Signs
About 2/3 of the way to the viewing area, we came up on a mining operation. There was an old school bus with "office" painted over the door and posted with warning signs about blasting. We didn't hear any blasting, but there were several large trucks working on the hillside. 

Once you're "there" you'll know it. There's a little parking area with a porta-potty and an information kiosk. There's a metal gate across the path to the viewing area, I guess to keep people from trying to drive out there. Step over or under the gate and take the short trail to the viewing platform. 

The Big - and very close - Elk
Keep your eyes (and ears) open while you're walking the trail! As soon as we started down the path, we heard a crazy, prehistoric-sounding noise. "I think that's a sound Elk make," Greg suggested. Creepy. Soon after that, we spotted a young Elk just off the path - I took a couple photos and we turned a bend ... and saw a male Elk with a big rack standing off the path. He couldn't have been more than 20 feet away from us. And he was looking at us! I snapped a couple quick photos and backed carefully away. We noticed that there were Elk tracks all over the trail, so seeing the Elk outside of the viewing tower area must not be all that uncommon.

The tower is a nice big, roofed structure. It has benches to sit on while you watch for the Elk. You can tell you're up on top of a knob - you have a wide open view of the surrounding mountains from up there. 

First Sightings From the Tower
We didn't see Elk from the tower right away, but after a few minutes a group of them came walking across the field. They never came very close to the tower, but we watched them travel from one side of the field to the other. And the male let out a few more of his bellowing bugle calls. I was happy that I had a zoom lens for my camera. Anyone thinking about coming out to the tower should consider bringing binoculars or a camera with a good, long zoom lens.

It was a fun trip and I'm glad I got to see the Elk, particularly those two we met on the trail. 

There are more Elk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The view from the tower

Entrance signs

The tower

The little doe we spotted first on the trail

Info station at the viewing area parking lot