Cumberland Trail: An Insider's Complete Guide

The Cumberland Trail is one of the best ways to see the rugged, deep gorges and remote terrain of Tennessee. It’s a section of the Great Eastern Trail that runs along the east end of the state, and south of the Kentucky line from Cumberland Gap to Georgia.

Although it is not yet complete, large segments covering more than 200 miles of the trail were finished by November 2016. Every year, volunteers continue to proceed in closing the gaps in this new trail. The State of Tennessee and the Non-Profit Cumberland Trail Conference (CTC) coordinate the current trail construction. It is funded through grants from individuals and private organizations. However, volunteers are the backbone of the trail production. CTC also sponsors college students every year during spring break ventures to take part in the construction. They help by carrying heavy materials, sawing, digging, and scouting.

What Makes It Great

The Cumberland Trail has twelve segments, all of which are described here. Each has different features, making it a diverse place to hike and camp. They include:

Tennessee River Gorge Segment

The Tennessee River Gorge Segment has a total distance of 34.8 miles with a figure-8 looping section on the western end. It starts from the Tennessee River near Chattanooga and follows the Cumberland Plateau. With interesting portions that plunge into rocky and steep gorges, it’s a great place to connect with your senses and fully draw in the crisp air. Much of the footpath follows the edge of River Gorge into Middle and Suck Creeks.

North Chickamauga Creek Segment

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The North Chickamauga Creek Segment is a narrow trail with a total mileage of 8.3 miles. Still under construction, this section will eventually connect to the Tennessee River Gorge and Three Gorges Segments. The downstream trail crosses the side of a steep valley lined with coal mines and massive bluffs. The Stevenson Branch campsite is accessible from this trail. Efforts are rewarded by this more difficult trailway with views of the Panther Branch and North Chickamauga Creek Gorges.

Three Gorges Segment

With a total mileage of 31.9 miles, the Three Gorges section is located past North Chickamauga. Possum Creek, Rock Creek and the rugged Soddy Gorges are in this segment. Trekkers will find deep gorges of sculpted sandstone boulders, cascading water, and evergreen rhododendron and hemlocks.

Laurel-Snow Segment

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Named after Laurel Falls (80 feet) and Snow Falls (35 feet), the Laurel-Snow Segment covers 18 miles. The two sections lead you into the wilderness, with elevated views on each side. In days past, coal mining was the primary economic activity. Today, this section boasts of wildlife, swimming holes, and waterfalls. This area is also a center of tourism. Upon completion, the segment will include four sections including the Uplands (route to be determined), Laurel-Snow SNA, Graysville Mountain, and McGill Creek (under construction) sections.

Piney River and the Falls Segments

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Located near Spring City, these two sections cover 9.6 miles one way. The primary pathway leads to the small Piney River past evergreen wild plants and waterfalls. A spurred path follows the natural sandstone tower where you take a ladder to the treetops to view the valley and the gorge. Much of the trail is easy to walk, with a few steep climbs and some rushing water. Upon completion, this segment will link up with the Falls Segment and as well as Laurel-Snow.

Crab Orchard and Grassy Cove Mountain Segments

photo by adam lau/go knoxville Mark Stanfill

Still under organization the Grassy Cove Segment is further in the north, but exact mileages are not precise. In this section, the streams disappear into limestone and reappear as a large spring, which is the source of Sequatchie River. The 110-foot Ozone Fall is definitely a key feature of the Cumberland Trail.

Obed Wild and Scenic River Segment

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With a mileage of 15.4, the Obed Wild and Scenic River segment has classic Tennessee whitewater tumbling through it in majestic style. Vegetation and rock formations are awe-inspiring. It was nicknamed as the ‘Trail of a Thousand Steps’ by Spring Break students for its many rock steps in and out of the Obed River Gorges and Daddy’s Creek. The north trailhead rests in the Eastern Time Zone at Nemo Bridge while the south trailhead is in the Central Time Zone at the Devil’s Breakfast Table. Unfortunately, cell phone service is unreliable so plan ahead how you might handle emergencies.

Bird Mountain Segment

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Although the Bird Mountain Segment is not complete yet, the existing trails are rugged, steep, and travel through high elevations. The trail crosses a plateau and connects with the Cumberland Mountains near Natural Area and in the Frozen Head State Park. It covers 11 miles with more trail sections to be constructed.

New River Segment

Covering 39.8 miles one-way,the New River Segment is the least traveled of the twelve segments. This segment includes a hike to the highest elevation on the Cumberland Trail on the top of Cross Mountain. Frequent changes in elevation add to the challenging nature of this segment.

Cumberland Mountain Segment

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The Cumberland Mountain Segment is at the northern end of the trail with some sections not maintained. The path, once a shining portion of the Cumberland Trail, has now become overgrown in some sections, so it’s hard to navigate this area of the Tennessee Valley. Hikers should expect the trail to be difficult to find in some places with some sections overgrown.

A Trailway For Every Hiker

The Cumberland Trail is similar to most southeastern trails with similar leaves, roots, and rocks running along its passageways. While some sections are technical and steep, all of these areas are ideal for beginners and welcoming for experienced backpackers, hikers, and trail runners. Cell phone reception at the Cumberland Trail is spotty in some segments, and hikers may appreciate the quiet isolation. Trekkers will see white blazes marking the trail every 50 yards.

Spending time on the Cumberland Trail provides a memorable experience, and since it is close enough to civilization, you can go for a replenishing meal shortly afterwards. Always be prepared and take water, snacks, and emergency provisions. Be sure to inform friends and family when and where you will be going. This will help narrow down your location in the event of an emergency.