Elevation gain: 179 ft.
Trailhead: Hazard Cave
Think of Pickett State Park as the old side of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.
Pickett — officially, it’s Pickett CCC Memorial State Park — is literally next-door to the BSF. So close, in fact, that Pickett State Forest, the 19,000-acre wilderness area that surrounds the state park, is separated from the Big South Fork by only a road — appropriately named Divide Road.
But Pickett is much older than the BSF. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed the BSF in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. Pickett, on the other hand, was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1934 and 1942. The original facilities there are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Many of the state park’s patchwork hiking trails are dated nearly as old as the park itself. Together, they visit a number of the wilderness area’s caves and natural bridges. The trails are all interconnected, giving hikers the opportunity to hike all day or for several days. But for the purpose of this next-to-last week of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge, we’re combining several segments of trail to make a loop to two of the most popular features at Pickett — Hazard Cave and Natural Bridge.
After the past several weeks, which have included grueling hikes to Parch Corn Creek, Blue Heron and Frozen Head, this week’s hike at Pickett is a cakewalk. It is less than 2.5 miles, with fewer than 200 ft. of elevation gain. (Compare that with last week’s hike along Frozen Head’s Old Mac Trail, which was 7.9 miles with almost 1,900 ft. of elevation gain.)
From the trailhead on S.R. 154 just inside the park’s south entrance, hikers will begin their trip on the Hazard Cave Trail, which quickly descends from the highway to beneath the bluff line, entering the upper reaches of a feeder stream that eventually empties into Arch Lake, the park’s 12-acre lake.
The trails at Pickett State Park are not necessarily the best-signed trails you’ll find, and there are a lot of them, which create intersections that can at times be confusing. From the parking lot at the Hazard Cave trailhead, you’ll almost immediately encounter a narrow footpath that heads right. Ignore it, continuing on the gravel trail that descends down two flights of concrete steps. Just after the first set of steps, a second foot path turns right. Ignore that one, too; it is the trail that will return you to your car.
It doesn’t take long to reach Hazard Cave, which is actually an impressive rock shelter. The signage at the trailhead indicates that the cave is a quarter-mile from the highway, but it’s actually closer to half that.
Hazard Cave is best known for the glow words that inhabit it. (See related story, page B8.) If you’re lucky and keep your flashlight turned off inside the cave, you will discover the blue light of the bioluminescent larvae. The area around the cave is protected by a boardwalk and wooden fences to encourage the growth of the rare Cumberland Sandwort and Lucy Braun’s Snakewort. The bench inside the cave was built by the CCC in the 1930s and is made of the American chestnut that once grew in great numbers on the Cumberland Plateau.
The trail cuts right in front of Hazard Cave, continuing its descent into a small canyon that encases the stream. Rhododendron, which is nearing the end of its summer blooming season, grows in abundance on either side of the trail.
Eventually, the trail leaves the stream and continues along the edge of the gorge-like sandstone walls that encase it. You’ll soon notice that the water in the stream is standing still. This is the upper reach of Arch Lake, which attracts canoeists and trout anglers to Pickett State Park.
There is an intersection with Ridge Trail, which departs to the left. Ignore that trail and continue straight until you reach a junction with the opportunity to go left or right.
Going left at the junction will lead you across a wooden bridge and along the Lake View Trail, which follows Arch Lake. While you can briefly detour to the left and check out the lake if you wish, our hike takes us right at the trail junction. So unless you want the added mileage, go right instead of left and do not cross the bridge.
At this point, the trail intersections will become more frequent, with several trails leading into the state park’s picnic area. Fortunately, the intersections are also better signed. Our destination at this point is Natural Bridge, so those are the signs you’ll want to follow. The first intersection is located just up the hill from the junction where you turned right. You’ll almost enter the cleared picnic area before turning right again.
Continue to follow the signs in the direction of Natural Bridge, until you reach a fork in the trail with signs indicating the opportunity to walk over the bridge or under the bridge. Take a left, to walk under the bridge, and continue through another stream bottom until you finally reach Natural Bridge, which is actually a sandstone arch that is similar to — but smaller than — the Big South Fork’s Twin Arches.
While you can go under the arch, or bridge, the passageway ends at a rock wall. The trail itself actually turns right at the bridge and continues in the opposite direction. Look for a set of rock steps at the end of the bridge and climb up onto the bridge itself to continue your hike.
At the top of the steps, you’ll find that you’ve actually emerged at the highway and another trailhead. Continue to your right on yet another footpath.
At this point, you will begin following the signs that point the way towards Hazard Cave, until you eventually reconnect with the Hazard Cave Trail near its trailhead. The intersection is not marked. Instead, be looking for the concrete steps that you descended just after leaving your vehicle. When you reach the intersection and see those steps, turn left and your vehicle will be waiting.
Getting There: Take S.R. 297 west from Oneida, through the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, to its intersection with S.R. 154 in Fentress County. Turn north (right) on S.R. 154 and continue for 2.95 miles. Just after you pass the entrance sign at Pickett State Park, look for a small parking area on the left. This is the Hazard Cave Trailhead. (If you come to either the Natural Bridge Trailhead or the park headquarters and entrance to the picnic area and campground, you’ve gone too far.)
Be Careful For: Two flights of concrete steps, and a set of rock steps at Natural Bridge that can be slippery when wet, are the only hazards.
Look For: Inside Hazard Cave, look for the blue lights of the glow worms that inhabit the cave (see related story, page B8).
Make It Better: When you reach the trail intersection at Lake View Trail, take a left-hand turn, cross the wooden bridge, and continue on Lake View Trail for views of Arch Lake. You can hike as far as you like; just remember that you have to backtrack to the trail intersection. Or, you can choose to complete the Ridge Trail, which is a 3.0-mile loop that will return you to near the trail junction.
Remember To: Use the #20WeekHikingChallenge hashtag in your photos on social media, or email photos to firstname.lastname@example.org, along with the names of all members of your hiking party, in order to log your miles.
Don’t Forget: Obey the Leave No Trace ethic by “taking only memories, leaving only footprints.” If you pack it in, pack it out!