I’ve gotten more ambitious in our hiking distances. Kairi being old enough to walk 4-5 miles on her own, inspiration from other Hike It Baby families, and a desire to hike as much of Chattanooga as I can are mostly to blame for this. These factors have all combined so when I am planing a “family hike” day, I look for trails at least three miles in length.
Since our plans to backpack on the Cumberland Trail keep getting foiled somehow or another, a couple weeks ago we planned to do a longer day hike to try and make up for lost time in the woods. Our winter hats from Sunday Afternoons came in while I was in Virginia, and Billy and the kids had just gotten their brand new Merrells in the mail, and I was itching to get out and take some pictures of our new gear while there was still plenty of color on the trees.
The nice thing about the Cumberland Trail, is that it isn’t hard to find long trails that aren’t too difficult. On the flip side though–a lot of these segments are too long, even with my new ambitions. 11 and 12 mile stretches just won’t work with our kids, and while it’s easy to plan an out-and-back to waterfalls in this area, the weather was cool enough we didn’t want our family hike day to be cut short by a soaked toddler.
We settled on the southern stretch of the Soddy Creek Gorge segment. It isn’t far from home, and at 4.9 miles one way and only 450′ elevation gain, if we left a car at each trailhead it was more than doable for us. Based on the descriptions we read it seemed to have enough interesting points along it to keep the kids engaged, without being so interesting that they wouldn’t want to keep walking.
Our assumptions from reading about the trail turned out to be correct–other than in length, this is a relatively easy hike, with a lot of diversity in what you are walking past.
We started at the Mowbray Pike parking lot (after passing it several times–the turn-off is kind of hidden in the side of a hill!). Past the trail sign, the trail goes up a few wooden steps, and then starts a gentle decline through a pine forest. From the beginning you can see signs of the coal mining that used to happen in this area, from scraps of equipment to chunks of coal itself in the seams. At just over a quarter mile the trail opens up to the only real viewpoint you get outside of winter time, overlooking the town of Soddy-Daisy and the Sequoyah power plant cooling towers. Giant power lines are a big scar on an otherwise beautiful landscape, and we spent a decent amount of time here looking at the colors changing on the trees, with the kids exploring the edges of brush and being a little too brave while looking into the gorge below.
Enter the forest again and cross the Mikel branch; as predicted our kids wanted to play in the stream, so this may be the end of your hike on days with nicer weather if you have little ones. We managed to keep them out of the water, but it was hard since all I wanted to do was stare quietly at our surroundings rather than chase them back to dry land. Across the bridge was the last in our major kid-distractions; huge boulders just perfect for climbing on. There were a few other adults there who had packed in thick mats to place beneath them while they did some bouldering, but our kids wasted no time scrambling up the rocks with or without protective measures. We probably could have ended the hike here and let them play for a good hour, but as we’d gone through the effort to bring a car to both trailheads and were only half a mile into our hike, we did what we rarely do and pulled the kids away from their exploration in order to keep moving.
From here, the trail becomes–not boring, but faster-paced. The landscape changes more gradually, passing below bluffs, by a rock house that has been confirmed as a shelter for Native Americans, and across more coal seams. At just past two miles there is a large stone bench. Just as we were starting to worry about our pace as we hadn’t seen this yet, we finally did–only to realize this was the second stone bench, at mile 2.4. Right before the second bench we also saw some really awesome rock formations, including one that looked like a stack of pancakes, one that looked like a raven, and a tree growing up directly through a large boulder. The kids did a little more climbing, we stopped for a snack, and then continued on.
The next stretch of the trail was definitely my favorite part of it; after leaving the second stone bench, the trails winds along an escarpment with the valley to the right, before the left side drops into a former mine trench around mile 2.9, leaving a narrow strip of land at the top for the trail. We saw a lot of beautiful color in the trees, and it almost felt like were were gliding across the mountain. And while there are fewer places for little ones to play here, the many coal seams and the mine trench make for great conversations with about clean energy and the way the earth heals itself. (As an aside–since making the decision to homeschool this year I am always on the lookout for ways to bring learning into our everyday activities, and hiking is one of THE BEST ways to do this.) At the end of the trench the trail winds down, crosses the trench, and then follow a set of switchbacks back up; one of only two sections with any real elevation gain to speak of.
Now begins my least favorite part of the trail. By now the kids were starting to get tired and it was spitting rain at us, so I admittedly was just nervous about getting to the car before any meltdowns happened, but the weather and season made this section mostly just wet and dreary. The trail follows an old road from the mining days, so it is wide with heavy tree cover, and, at least when we were there, is very soggy. I suspect in springtime when the rhododendron is in bloom I would feel very differently about this section, or even summertime when the thick overhead and proximity to Soddy Creek would be a reprieve from the heat. In October with kids? I just wanted to be done.
The section ends after crossing a small bridge. We got very turned around here, as my guide referenced a blue-blazed trail spurring off to go to the Sluder Rd trailhead (where our other car was), and crossing a bridge to continue on the CT. There are two bridges. The first passes over a heavy drainage area before reaching a very well-marked intersection between the blue-blazed trail to the left, and the bridge over Soddy Creek to the right. On our trip even the stepping stones in this area were completely covered due to recent rain, and we kind of Gimli’d Sebastian over a particularly wet section, much to the amusement of all four of us.
From here the trail goes into its second elevation gain–a steep 200 feet in about .2 miles–while passing through the Little Soddy Historic Mining Area. Small historic markers make a good excuse to stop and catch your breath while you read them. Once at the top, cross a final bridge before arriving at the trailhead on Hotwater Rd. The parking lot is about 200ft to your left, at the intersection of Hotwater and Sluder.
Billy and I agreed once we were done, that this was one of our favorite trails in TN so far. Even at the end, with the threat of rain pressing in on us and the soggy ground zapping our energy, we could tell this was a trail that would have something to offer in any season, and we were both independently planning a trip here in the winter when you could see more of the valley as you walked. I have already recommended this to a local mom friend who was looking for a new place to take a group of older kids, on the basis of the bouldering. And in so many of the trails near Chattanooga, especially on Lookout Mountain and near Signal Point, there is still so much civilization to contend with–whether it’s seeing houses built onto the mountains or hearing traffic, there is a human impact you can’t escape. That was not the case on this section of trail, and that above all else may be why we all enjoyed it so much.
Overall Family-Friendly Rating: 4.5/5 The hardest part of this trail is definitely in its length, as far as going out with young kids is concerned. We managed the trail in about five hours, including our stops to play, eat, and one point when I realized I had dropped my phone and Billy backtracked for almost a mile before he found it. I think a mile per hour seems to be about our normal pace when the kids are doing most of their own walking however, so even with the length, the ease of the trail enabled us to maintain a child-friendly pace. The gorge presents a hazard because of its drop-off, but with the brush field to the left it’s not treacherous provided you keep your kids close during this stretch, and and creek/bouldering play should of course be done–or not done– with your kids limits in mind. To bring it up to a 5/5 rating I would suggest doing an out-and-back from the Mowbray Pike parking lot. Go as far as your kids feel comfortable with mileage-wise, but this is definitely the section very young kids are going to appreciate the most. In half a mile you get views, a creek, and rocks to climb on, with very little change in elevation–and if that doesn’t constitute a toddler-friendly hike then I’m really not sure what does!