Trails: Lake, Dark Hollow, Big Valley, and Ghost House Trails
Hike Location: Big Ridge State ParkGeographic Location: west of Maynardville, TN (36.24368, -83.93093)Length: 5.9 milesDifficulty: 8/10 (Moderate/Difficult)Last Hiked: May 2019Overview: A lollipop loop passing many old settlement sites.Park Information: https://tnstateparks.com/parks/big-ridgeHike Route Map: https://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=747922
Directions to the trailhead: North of Knoxville, take I-75 to SR 61 (exit 121). Exit and go east on SR 61. Drive SR 61 east 12 miles to the signed entrance for Big Ridge State Park on the left. Turn left to enter the park, then turn left to reach the Visitor Center and park office. Park in the parking lot at the start of the campground road just past the park office.
The hike: Established in the 1930’s by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as one of five demonstration parks, Big Ridge State Park protects 3687 acres on the south shore of Norris Lake. The park was built in cooperation with the National Park Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and many of the park’s buildings still feature the CCC’s handiwork. Prior to the TVA’s arrival, pioneer settlers scratched out a meager living on this land, and remnants of their presence dot the park’s landscape. Several of these remnants are passed on this hike. Big Ridge State Park offers many nice amenities, including swimming, fishing, and boating on Big Ridge Lake, 20 cabins, a 50-site campground, and several picnic areas. Of the three state parks north of Knoxville with TVA roots (Norris Dam and Cove Lake being the other two), Big Ridge is the best destination for hikers as it features over 15 miles of hiker-only trails. Many routes through the park’s trail system are possible, and the route described here gives a good sample of the area’s landscape without pegging the difficulty meter.
|Trailhead along campground road|
From the start of the campground road, walk toward the campground to find the signed trailhead for the Lake Trail on the right. Trails at Big Ridge State Park are marked by color-coded plastic shields; the shields on the Lake Trail are green. Though not particularly numerous, the markings are sufficient to keep you on the trail. The single track dirt Lake Trail climbs moderately for a short distance with Big Ridge Lake visible through the trees downhill to the right. Sweet gum, maple, and beech are the most common trees in this forest, but some loblolly pines planted by the CCC in the 1930’s also enter the mix. Two short spur trails exit the Lake Trail: the Meditation Point Trail to the right at 0.1 miles and the Loyston Overlook Trail to the left at 0.5 miles. The Meditation Point Trail leads a short distance uphill to a bench in the middle of the forest, while the Loyston Overlook Trail leads a slightly longer distance uphill to an overlook of Norris Lake. These spur trails are worth exploring either now or on your journey back to the trailhead after you complete the loop portion of this hike.
After passing a bench and shelter just past the Lake Trail’s highest elevation, the trail descends gradually to reach the west side of Big Ridge Dam at 0.6 miles. A 50-foot concrete dam built by the CCC, Big Ridge Dam separates the park’s Big Ridge Lake on the right from the much larger Norris Lake on the left. The dam allows water levels in the park’s lake to remain constant despite seasonal changes in Norris Lake’s water level. When I came here in late spring, water levels in the two lakes were about the same.
|Big Ridge Dam|
The Lake Trail crosses Big Ridge Dam to reach the trail intersection that forms the loop portion of this hike. The Lake Trail continues to the right, and it will be our return route. To hike the steepest sections downhill, this description turns left to begin the Dark Hollow Trail, thus hiking the loop clockwise. Marked with blue plastic shields, the Dark Hollow Trail is narrower and more primitive than the Lake Trail. The initial segment of the Dark Hollow Trail clings to the side of Pinnacle Ridge with Norris Lake just downhill to the left. Several downed trees will need to be negotiated. Some poison ivy grows along this trail, but careful looking for leaves of three will allow you to avoid it.
|Dark Hollow Trail along Lake Norris|
The trail passes an unofficial campsite as it climbs up and over the end of Pinnacle Ridge before descending into West Dark Hollow. Dark Hollow is a deep east-west ravine that lies between the park’s namesake Big Ridge to the north and the lower Pinnacle Ridge to the south. A low saddle in the middle separates the hollow into east and west parts. At 1.4 miles, you cross a nice wooden footbridge over the main stream in Dark Hollow before turning right to begin heading up the hollow. Soon you pass signed official backcountry campsite #1, which occupies a pleasant location just uphill from the creek. For the next mile the trail follows an old dirt road as it climbs gradually up West Dark Hollow. You pass several old homestead sites; they are identified by stone foundations, flat areas, and/or plants such as red cedars and daffodils. Though the name Dark Hollow sounds ominous, the hiking is quite pleasant.
|Hiking up Dark Hollow|
At 2.4 miles, you climb a gradual broad switchback to reach the saddle in the middle of Dark Hollow and an intersection with the Big Valley Trail, which goes left and right. Turning left leads to the Indian Rock Loop, a very scenic but also very long and difficult add-on to this hike. This description turns right to begin heading back toward the trailhead. Marked with orange plastic shields, the Big Valley Trail climbs rather steeply on an eroded track to reach the highest elevation on this hike, which stands about 350 feet above Big Ridge Lake. A steep descent next brings you to the upper end of the Ghost House Trail at 3.2 miles. You could go either way here, but to see more old settlement remnants this description turns right here and then turns left at the next intersection to descend gradually along the east arm of the Ghost House Trail’s loop, which is marked with yellow plastic shields.
|The "ghost house"|
Soon you reach the “ghost house” for which this trail is named. Once the home of Maston Hutcheson’s grandson, all that remains is a root cellar, cistern, and well casing. Local legend states that this structure and the nearby Hutcheson family home are haunted, but I encountered no paranormal activity on my visit.
Just past the ghost house lies the Norton cemetery, a pioneer cemetery that features headstones dating to the early 1900’s. More gradual descending brings you to the lower end of the Ghost House Trail, where a left turn brings you to an intersection with the Lake Trail at 4.1 miles. Turn right to begin the last segment of this hike. This part of the Lake Trail can be rather muddy, but it offers only minor undulations with persistent views of Big Ridge Lake to the left. At 4.5 miles, a spur trail heads a short distance right to reach the Snodderly-Armp cemetery. The headstones in this pioneer cemetery are older than the ones in the Norton cemetery you passed earlier, and this cemetery contains the burial sites of some of this area’s earliest residents.
5.3 miles into the hike, you close the loop at the east end of Big Ridge Dam. Cross the dam and retrace your steps to the trailhead to complete the hike, making sure to take the spur trails to Loyston Overlook and/or Meditation Point if you did not visit these places earlier. Also, on your drive back out to I-75, you will pass the Museum of Appalachia, which features a recreated pioneer village that depicts life in this region during the early 1900’s. After hiking past what remains of these old settlement sites, you can stop at the museum on your way home to see what the sites might have looked like at their peak.