Trail: Lilly Bluff
Trailhead: Clear Creek
Distance: 1.3 miles
Elevation Gain: 240 ft.
Through the first two months of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge, every trail has featured a waterfall or an overlook. This week’s hike to Lilly Bluff at the Obed Wild & Scenic River is the first to feature both.
At 1.3 miles, the hike from Clear Creek to the Lilly Bluff Overlook and back is one of the shortest hikes of the challenge thus far (in fact, only the Buzzard Rock hike, at one mile, was shorter). It’s a welcome reprieve after the six-mile hikes to the John Litton Farm and at Blue Heron the past two weeks. But the Lilly Bluff hike is more than just a break from the more strenuous hikes of late — it’s also one of the most spectacular hikes of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge.
In fact, not one but two stunning waterfalls are found along the Bridge Trail from the river to the top of the bluff, as Melton Mill Branch cascades towards the river below. And there are multiple vantage points from Lily Bluff — all of which are photogenic.
Located just outside the tiny town of Lancing in Morgan County, Lilly Bluff is the better part of an hour’s drive from Oneida, making it the furthest trek by vehicle of the hiking challenge. But the hike, however short, is well worth the drive. Between Sunbright and Wartburg, S.R. 62 leads motorists through rural farmlands most local residents may not be too familiar with. It’s an interesting change of pace from the U.S. Hwy. 27 commute through Morgan County.
The Obed Wild & Scenic River is a sister park to the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. Not only does it share many of the same geological and geographical characteristics as the Big South Fork, but it’s under the same management. Its acreage — just over 5,000 acres make up the entire federally-protected area — is a fraction of the Big South Fork’s 125,000 acres. As such, there are many fewer miles of hiking trails available (the entire trail system at the Obed consists of about 20 miles, compared to about 150 miles in the BSF). But the scenery here is simply spectacular, and the rivers are as untamed as their names suggest.
Clear Creek, which Lilly Bluff overlooks, has its headwaters near Clarkrange and near Banner Springs. In fact, only a small ridge separates White Creek, which empties into Clear Creek, from White Oak Creek, which empties into Clear Fork and later the Big South Fork. Clear Creek eventually empties into the Obed River, which empties into the Emory River near Wartburg. The Emory River eventually becomes part of Watts Bar Lake and empties into the Clinch River.
The Obed Wild & Scenic River protects parts of the Emory River, the Obed River, Clear Creek and Daddy’s Creek. Perhaps the most popular activity at the Obed is whitewater kayaking. During the high-water season, which is nearing its end, the Obed and its main tributaries — Clear Creek and Daddy’s Creek — are considered premier routes for paddlers.
Hikers who arrive at the parking area located on either side of the bridge at Clear Creek during the spring months will likely encounter kayakers who are finishing their paddling adventure.
The Bridge Trail begins on the west side of Clear Creek and heads south along the river through a forest of mature hemlocks and magnolia, with a canopy of oak, hickory and maple interspersed.
After just a short distance, a spur trail departs the main trail, leading to the base of Lilly Bluff. Rock climbers use the trail to access the bluff, which is one of several climbing routes found throughout the Obed. In addition to whitewater paddling, rock climbing is a popular activity at the Obed WSR.
A short distance later, the Bridge Trail switches back to the right, and appears to fork. An unnamed and unsigned spur trail leads to the left. The unofficial foot path leads to the edge of Melton Mill Branch, a wild mountain stream that is quickly dropping towards Clear Creek. While the Hiking Challenge does not typically encourage hikers to leave the designated trail, the foot path is well-worn, and the side trip to see the waterfall that awaits is well worth the additional few hundred feet of distance.
Back on the main trail, the path continues to the base of Lilly Bluff. The roar of Melton Mill Branch can still be heard, and soon a second — and even more spectacular — waterfall comes into view. There is another faint footpath that leads to the base of this waterfall. And while the view of the falls from its base is excellent, the descent is a little trickier to navigate, the plant growth easier to disturb, and it’s probably best to stay on the main trail. Besides, there’s a view of the second waterfall visible from the main trail, albeit a distant one that’s difficult to photograph.
A short distance beyond the second waterfall, the trail makes its final ascent to the top of the plateau, joining a gravel footpath from a separate parking area at the start of a boardwalk that is designed to protect the sensitive lichens growing on top of Lilly Bluff from the feet of hikers. The boardwalk offers several views of the Clear Fork gorge.
Getting There: Take U.S. Hwy. 27 south through Sunbright. A short distance past the Morgan County Fairgrounds, turn right onto S.R. 62 (Nashville Highway). Continue west 4.3 miles, then turn left onto Ridge Road. Continue another 3.8 miles to Clear Creek Bridge. There is ample parking on either side of the bridge.
Be Careful For: If you leave the main trail to explore the waterfalls along Melton Mill Branch, some rock-hopping will be required to reach the best vantage points. Use caution on the rocks, which can be slick when wet.
Make It Better: If the short hike to the overlook isn’t enough, take the Point Trail, which follows the ridge separating Clear Creek from Obed River for another 1.9 miles to the confluence of Clear Creek and the Obed. To access the trail, take the gravel footpath from Lilly Bluff Overlook towards the upper parking lot instead of heading back down the Bridge Trail towards the river. The trail offers several stunning views of the Clear Creek gorge. The total length of the hike will be a little more than four miles.
Look For: As you ascend the side of the gorge along the Bridge Trail, look up through the hardwoods, magnolia and rhododendron, and you’ll catch glimpses of fencing atop the bluff. That’s the viewing platform at Lilly Bluff Overlook.
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, please pack it out!