Exploring the Lower John Muir Trail


With more than 150 miles of trails devoted solely to hiking in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, there are bound to be a few that are hiked more than others. But one of the most under-utilized of them all is the trail commonly referred to as the “Lower John Muir Trail.”

For many years, this five-mile trail in the southern portion of the Big South Fork was a lonesome disconnect. It was a part of the John Muir Trail, hence its name, and yet, it wasn’t part of the John Muir Trail. Because a route across Hurricane Ridge had not been blazed, the Lower John Muir Trail could not be hiked as part of the rest of the JMT, which extended from O&W Bridge all the way to Pickett State Park.

That all changed a couple of years ago, when BSF staff and volunteers completed the missing link from O&W Bridge to Honey Creek Loop, and the upper and lower segments of the John Muir Trail became one. The Lower JMT — also called Beaver Falls Trail — finally had a purpose. Muir’s blue silhouette fastened to trees along the trail finally meant something.

Still, the number of folks who through-hike the JMT are relatively few, and the number who complete the final five miles of the trail southeast from Honey Creek Trailhead fewer still. For all realistic purposes, the JMT ends at Honey Creek these days, as that is the last trailhead on the trail. While hikers can easily trek all the way to Burnt Mill Bridge, the JMT has not been officially extended that far, because long-term plans call for it to be extended further south to Peter’s Ford in Fentress County.

Perhaps another part of the reason for the lack of utilization of the Beaver Falls Trail is because, unless you are a through-hiker, it doesn’t really go anywhere. It links the Honey Creek and Burnt Mill trails — in fact, it makes for quite an epic two-day hike for adventurists who want to link the two loop trails — but in and of itself, there isn’t much there to see. The waterfall that lends its namesake to the trail is actually off-trail — hard to get to, and harder still to scramble to the base of for an appreciable view. And if you’re a day-hiker, you either have to park a second vehicle at the other end, or turn and retrace your steps across the five miles once you’ve reached its end.

Still, the Beaver Falls Trail is not without merit. It is a quiet, peaceful hike through open forests that is at times stunningly beautiful, especially in the early spring when the many dogwoods that line the trail are in bloom. If you are looking to get away from people, where you’re much more likely to see a critter of the four-legged variety than of the two-legged kind, Beaver Falls is the trail for you.

From Honey Creek Trailhead, the trail sets out in the general direction of Robbins, Tenn., mostly following abandoned oil well and logging roads for the first half of its length. Far away from the river at this point, the woods are quiet except for the sounds of the song birds and — this time of year especially — the occasional gobble of a wild turkey.

Eventually — about 2.5 miles in, to be exact — the trail leaves the old roads and drops into a scenic creek bottom. It’s an excellent place to find a flat rock to sit on for a picnic lunch, and Beaver Falls is just downstream for those interested in a bit of off-trail exploring.

From the unnamed branch, the trail climbs back to the top of the plateau, then winds in and out of small drainages as it follows the side of a ridge above the Clear Fork River for a couple of miles. Through the trees, you can see a large ridge on the opposite side of the river. That would be Grassy Knob, and on the far side of that ridge, New River. Eventually, the trail begins a gentle descent from the ridge top and meets with the Burnt Mill Loop Trail where the loop trail crosses Honey Creek Road.

Like a fine red wine paired with a select cut of beef, Beaver Falls is a good hike by itself, but it’s even better when paired with either Burnt Mill Loop. Parking is scant at the trail intersection, anyway, making Burnt Mill Bridge a better place to park your pick-up vehicle. Crossing the road and continuing on the east side of the Burnt Mill Loop only adds a couple of miles to the trip, and the views of the scenic stream are well worth the added distance.

Once the John Muir Trail is extended to Peter’s Ford, the keepers of the Sheltowee Trace Trail will be one step closer to their ultimate goal of linking the Trace to the Cumberland Trail. Once that happens, the Beaver Falls Trail — or Lower John Muir — will become even more relevant, as part of a route that will take through-hikers from Morehead, Ky., all the way to Lookout Mountain just outside Chattanooga.

For now, though, it’s still just a peaceful stroll through the woods. And that’s good enough.

This article was reprinted from the Independent Herald newspaper with permission.

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