The Piney River Segment will eventually link with Laurel-Snow Segment to the southwest and to The Falls Segment to the northeast (routes yet to be determined). The Lower Piney River Section is the only portion of the segment constructed at this time.
LOWER PINEY RIVER SECTION
SHUT-IN GAP ROAD TO NEWBY BRANCH TRAILHEAD
Piney River Segment
Distance: 8.5 miles one-way
Elevation Change: 772 feet gain
Cautions: Steep drop-offs; in winter, rocky overhangs have ice flows and hanging ice that can loosen during warming spells; heavy rainfall often causes serious flash floods of the flats along the river; crossing of McDonald Branch can be treacherous.
Camping: Piney River Suspension Bridge Campsite at Mile 3.0 (5.5), Rockhouse Branch Campsite (also called “Logging Camp Campsite”) at Mile 4.1 (4.4), Spider Den Bluff Campsite accessed by a 0.3-mile side trail at Mile 5.4 (3.1), and Newby Branch Forest Camp 8.5 (0.0); in addition, leave-no-trace (LNT) camping is available at White Pine Cascades site at Mile 6.5 (2.0) about a half mile before White Pine Cascades.
Water: There are no safe water sources along this section of trail because of surface contamination in all streams. Bring your own drinking water; boil or sterilize all water used for cooking.
Topographic Map: Pennine Quadrangle
Piney River Trailhead on Shut-In Gap Road (N35 42.834 W84 52.821)
Duskin Creek Trailhead at Walden Mountain Road (N35 41.402 W84 56.997)
Newby Branch Trailhead (N35 42.076 W84 57.285)
This segment of the Cumberland Trail was one of several pocket wilderness areas developed by the Hiwassee Land Company of the Bowater Southern Paper Corporation and later deeded to the State of Tennessee. While this trail is now part of the CT, it has historically been called “Piney River Trail.”
At present, the CT is incomplete from near the confluence of Duskin Creek and Piney River to the Laurel-Snow Uplands Section in the direction of Trail-South and from the trailhead at Shut-In Gap Road in the direction of Trail-North into The Falls Segment. The exact route of these connections is undetermined. The section connecting to the Laurel-Snow Uplands Section from Wash Pelfrey Road will be called the “Upper Piney River” Section. When that section is constructed, the Piney River Trail from the vicinity of the Duskin Creek confluence with Piney River to the Newby Branch Trailhead will be a side trail off the CT. For now, this is contiguous trail from Shut-In Gap Road to Newby Branch Trailhead.
The Lower Piney River Section, marked with signage and white tree blazes, passes through dense mountain laurel, rhododendron, hemlock, and hardwood forest, which is second- and third-growth timber but contains virtually all species of hard and softwood trees indigenous to East Tennessee. There are several large beech trees along the trail. Look for clusters of pawpaw and two varieties of large-leafed magnolia.
Waterfalls, cascades, rock houses, and bluffs abound along the trail and there are several spur trails leading to more features. An old mine, an old narrow-gage railroad bed, five bridges across various streams, and a 100-foot suspension bridge across the Piney River offer the hiker many beautiful views and photographic opportunities. In spring, the wildflowers can be stunning; be alert for trout lily, rue anemone, lady slippers, gay wings, jack-in-the-pulpit, wild iris, trillium, Solomon’s seal, false Solomon’s seal, whorled horse balm, hearts-a-bustin’, and dozens more. March and April are the best months for wildflowers, and the enthusiast should consider two hikes during this period, one early and one late to get the full effect of the abundance of flowers.
The day hiker can cover the entire trail end-to-end in about five hours of hiking with a couple of rest breaks and a lunch break. However, shorter in-and-out trips offer equally rewarding experiences, especially if enough time is allowed for some of the spur trail features. If you intend to hike end-to-end and want to include some of the spur trails, be sure to allow sufficient extra time; for example, Spider Den Bluff spur is worth the effort but will add 1 to 2 hours to your hike if you spend any time at all enjoying the scenery or swimming at the bluff. There are many fine pools along the trail that invite the hiker to cool off with a swim in the heat of summer.
Trailheads: Both ends of this segment are accessible on Shut-In Gap Road. From US 27 at Spring City, take TN 68 northeast for 1.2 miles and turn left onto Shut-In Gap Road. Proceed another 1.1 miles to the large, well-kept Piney River Picnic Area on the right, which has ample parking. The Piney River Trailhead is on the left across the road from the picnic area. This trailhead is the northern terminus of the Piney River Segment and will be the southern terminus of The Falls Segment when constructed.
To reach the other end of the trail, continue on Shut-In Gap Road another 5.2 miles to Forest Camp Road on the left, which is a dirt and gravel road not very well marked. There is no sign at this writing; instead, there is a single post with the words Newby and Duskin inscribed in white letters.
Turn on Forest Camp Road. In 0.2 mile, pass a dirt track to the left, and in another 0.1 mile, reach a fork that gives you the option of bearing left toward Duskin Creek on Walden Mountain Road to reach the Duskin Creek Trailhead. To get to the Newby Branch Trailhead, bear right and continue less than 0.1 mile, past the first entrance, to the second entrance of the Newby Branch Forest Camp and turn in left. The Newby Branch Trailhead is just ahead on the right. Park in any open area. Hikers can station a vehicle here or at the Duskin Creek Trailhead on Walden Mountain Road to make a shuttle back to the Piney River Trailhead after the hike. However, Newby Branch Trailhead is recommended since vehicle parking at the Duskin Creek Trailhead is very limited and exposed, and Walden Mountain Road is frequently badly eroded in places after heavy rains.
Mile 0.0 (8.5) Walk across Shut-In Gap Road from the picnic area to start the Piney River Trail, which parallels Piney River upstream.
Mile 0.1 (8.4) The Twin Rocks Overlook spur is on the left. This is the first of two spur trails to the left that together constitute a loop to Twin Rocks Overlook. The main trail passes the second spur in another 0.3 mile. The hiker can leave the main trail here at the first spur and hike 1.3 miles to the overlook and then follow the second spur trail to where it rejoins the main trail at Mile 0.4. The hike is a moderate loop of 2.5 miles with a total elevation increase of 500 feet. To reach the overlook at the upper part of the loop, the hiker must climb wire cage ladders to the top of Twin Rocks to see out over the Piney River and Soak Creek Gorges. The final ladder climbs are daunting, but the view is expansive and gives an appreciation of the heights and landforms. In fall, the colors can be spectacular.
Mile 0.3 (8.2) Flat Rock Spur Trail. On the right is another spur trail that is the Flat Rock Loop. The loop drops to the river and heads upstream to a long flat rock at the water’s edge. This 0.1-mile loop then turns up to rejoin the main trail at Mile 0.36. At the river, there’s an unofficial trail that leads left back out to Shut-In Gap Road, just beyond the Piney River Picnic Area, but this isn’t recommended. If you’re just out for a short walk on the Flat Rock Loop, it is best to continue on the loop back up to the main trail and return the way you came.
Mile 0.36 (8.14) The Flat Rock Loop rejoins the main trail on the right.
Mile 0.4 (8.1) Spur trail left to Twin Rocks Overlook. If you’ve taken the trip to Twin Rocks, you’ll rejoin the Piney River Trail at this junction.
The main trail continues below the crest of a ridge through mixed-hardwood forest, passing rock shelters now and then and some huge boulders. Ferns and wildflowers abound.
Mile 1.9 (6.6) McDonald Branch. Caution! While this creek is mainly a wet-weather tributary, it tumbles steeply from high on the ridge down to the river below. Consequently, many rocks and boulders have been exposed in its bed. There is usually enough water in this creek to keep the rocks slippery. There is no bridge or easy ford of this creek, so use care while climbing from boulder to boulder.
The trail is fairly level, but the drop-off to the river below is steep in places. There’s an abundance of wildflowers on this stretch in the spring, lady slippers and many others are in bloom. The trail makes a descent of about 300 feet in less than 0.3 mile to the river bridge.
Mile 3.0 (5.5) The Piney River Suspension Bridge provides photographic opportunities of the river. To construct the bridge, parts were flown in by helicopter and assembled by the Bowater Paper Company. The views are impressive from the bridge in both directions. Deep pools afford swimming and fishing opportunities. Just before the bridge is a very nice flat campsite with stone fireplaces and logs and stone seats. Be aware of weather conditions when camping near the river, which is prone to flash flooding during heavy downpours; more than one life has been lost in flash floods along its banks.
Somewhere in the vicinity of the suspension bridge and the Duskin Creek confluence with the Piney River just beyond is where the Upper Piney River Section of the CT will join the existing trail when it is constructed in the future.
After crossing the bridge, the trail continues upstream on an old narrow gauge railbed that remains from the coal and lumbering era.
Mile 3.1 (5.4) A huge rockslide has covered a portion of the main trail soon after the suspension bridge. It’s an impressive sight as you come down the trail and look ahead at a massive wall of rock 15 feet high across the abandoned railroad bed. The slide occurred in 2011 after heavy rains, creating the wall of rock across the trail. Use caution as you scale this obstruction and descend on the other side. This obstacle will likely have some work done in the near future; so watch for a change.
Mile 3.4 (5.1) Cross Pine Branch Bridge; a short spur leads upstream along Pine Branch to Pine Branch Falls, which is actually a small cascade.
Mile 4.1 (4.4) The trail turns upstream along Rockhouse Branch, another tributary of Piney River, and passes an impressive old stone construction on the left. It’s made of stacked stone and looks like a pier extending toward the creek. It was used by the old narrow gauge railroad as an abutment for a bridge across the creek. On the other side, there is evidence of an abutment and a railbed though it is hard to see beyond the trees.
Cross the 40-foot Rockhouse Branch Bridge; a side trail left drops down the ridge to the Rockhouse Branch Campsite (also called “Logging Camp Campsite”) not far from the confluence of Duskin Creek with the Piney River. From the campsite, this side trail climbs back up the ridge and rejoins the main trail, a loop route of 0.1 mile.
After the Rockhouse Branch Bridge crossing and the side trail, the main trail turns back down toward the river, and in 300 feet you’ll reach the junction where the short loop comes back in on the left. In another 50 feet, the trail rejoins the old railbed along the river. The trail bears right to now follow Duskin Creek upstream.
Mile 4.3 (4.2) A spur leads a short distance to a rock shelter.
Mile 4.4 (3.1) For the next half mile, the trail follows the ridge above Duskin Creek with nice views of the opposite ridges.
Mile 4.6 (3.9) A short spur trail leads 0.2 mile to Hemlock Falls, which is actually a small cascade in Duskin Creek.
Mile 4.8 (3.7) Deep Pool Cascade Bridge. The trail crosses this footbridge; Deep Pool Cascade is just upstream. This pretty little cascade falls 4 or 5 feet over several rock ledges into a deep blue-green pool of water. The bridge offers a good view. There is no established trail down to the cascade; so use caution if you decide to cool your feet in the water.
Mile 5.4 (3.1) Spider Den Bluff Spur Trail. A wooden sign marks this side trail left that descends 0.3 mile steeply to the banks of Duskin Creek. At the base of Spider Den Bluff, walk downstream to a campsite with rock table and benches. The campsite is fine for either a lunch break or overnight camping.
From the junction, the main trail descends the ridge overlooking the creek.
Mile 5.9 (2.6) White Pine Cascades. A wooden sign marks this lovely feature. Perhaps the most unusual aspect of White Pine Cascades is that there are almost no white pines in the vicinity; perhaps there were when the cascade was named. The cascade offers fine photo opportunities in all seasons, but especially in fall when the deciduous forest colors make for a spectacular backdrop. In winter, ice sheets may form large shelves, and during the spring rainy season, the cascade roars with the large volume of water passing over. In summer dry season, the cascade may become a trickle.
The trail switchbacks up from Duskin Creek and continues along the side of a ridge about 100 feet above the creek. The trail is lined with stone slab; use caution, especially in wet or icy conditions.
Mile 6.7 (2.4) The remnants of an old mine are on the ridge to the right above this portion of the trail. The site cannot be seen from the trail; a sign marked the site at one time but no longer exists. Two mine openings, some rubble, and a few concrete remnants are all that still exist on the ridge above the trail. CAUTION: Do not attempt to enter either of the openings; the soil and rock in this vicinity is extremely unstable. Also, the State of Tennessee has closed all caves, mines, and sinkholes on state-owned land in an effort to prevent the spread of white nose syndrome in the indigenous bat population.
Mile 6.4 (2.1) Cross a stretch of stone slabs. The trail continues through mixed hardwood-hemlock forest with some dense mountain laurel and rhododendron thickets
Mile 6.5 (2.0) White Pine Cascades Campsite. The trail cuts through this site for LNT camping.
Mile 6.7 (1.8) Begin a gentle descent. Take care crossing some large stone slabs.
Mile 6.9 (1.6) The trail continues through a large stand of mountain laurel along Duskin Creek on the left.
Mile 7.1 (1.4) Cross Duskin Creek on a 50-foot steel bridge.
Mile 7.2 (1.3) The trail follows a rock wall just before crossing a wet-weather tributary. The trail continues through some beautiful hemlock, rhododendron, and mountain laurel with Duskin Creek on the right.
Mile 7.4 (1.1) The trail emerges from the forest at the Duskin Creek Trailhead on Walden Mountain Road. The trailhead is marked with a Tennessee State Park Cumberland Trail sign; there is only limited parking for those wishing to start or end a hike here. Turn right on the road and cross the bridge, which is a concrete roadbed covering six large culverts that handle the waters of Duskin Creek beneath the roadway. In heavy rains, the culvert bridge is often inundated, and the road becomes heavily eroded. After the bridge, watch for the trail to re-enter the forest on the left.
The trail ascends a ridge in hardwood forest along Newby Branch on the right, a tributary of Duskin Creek.
Mile 8.3 (0.2) Cross a jumble of stones and continue following Newby Branch through lovely mountain laurel, hemlock, and mixed second-growth forest.
Mile 8.4 (0.1) Cross a 20-foot bridge over Newby Branch.
Mile 8.5 (0.0) Ascend steadily through second-growth mixed-hardwood forest to emerge from the forest at the Newby Branch Trailhead.
— Frank Jamison, CTC Board Member
Scott Jamison, my son; Mitchell Jamison, my grandson; and Gary Grametbauer, CTC Board Member, accompanied me on several hikes to gather data about this section, and all provided valuable insight and knowledge. Scott assisted in verifying GPS coordinates; Mitchell pushed a wheel to record distances; and Gary Grametbauer helped with overall verification and proofreading and gave input on flora and fauna.