Sheltowee Trace


Beginning (Southern End) to Thompson Overlook

(via the Hidden Passage Loop Trail at Pickett State Park)


Monday, March 21, 2011




No kidding – an outdoor enthusiast could be forgiven for believing that they’d died and gone to heaven on this hike!  I’m certainly not worthy!  This is truly one magical experience!  You start out with what looks like a pleasant walk through the woods and - presto! – you’re walking around and under a lush rock house, complete with a dripping water roof.  Then – chango! – you’re walking where eagles and hawks soar on the precipice of a mountaintop, complete with stunning vistas!  In fact, you know what this hike reminded me of?  A combination of 3 of my favorites:  one part Red River Gorge in general, one part Sand Gap Trail at Natural Bridge State Park, and one part the Van Hook Falls section of the Sheltowee Trace up in the Rockcastle Narrows area. 


Yet - while this is a positively mesmerizing experience, it’s also a very dangerous one.  I can only recommend it for experienced hikers.  Why?  Because despite the fact that this is stunningly level hike given the differing terrain you’ll traverse, the trail is 10 miles long and there are entire sections where you’re likely to plummet to your death with one wrong step. 


This also seems like a prime area to encounter snakes, bear, and other possibly dangerous wildlife, so as an added measure of protection I wore my car keys on one of my belt loops so that they would jangle with each step – something that’s said to warn bears away along with - hopefully - any of your basic undomesticated large dogs and cats!  At any rate, please be careful – and I would not recommend coming out here alone. 


Let’s back up a little though – I drove through Pickett State Park and found it to be a very nice place (  According to their website, they’ve got 58 miles of hiking in total out here, a 12 acre lake, and a swimming pool.  They also offer cabins as well – including accommodations for large groups. 


As for directions to the park, they’re on the website (which also contains a nice article about this particular hike by another hiker), but specific directions to this particular trail head are below.  I parked in the lot and started out a little after 10AM (I’d get back a little over 5 hours later – just so you can judge the hiking time), letting the significance of the area sink in…


This is the southernmost end of the Sheltowee Trace, a 278 mile trail which runs almost all the way up to Ohio, and this area in general was one that I’d waited a looooong time to get to.  Gas is expensive, and this park is OUT THERE.  All of it had me wondering how awesome it would be to be able to travel the country, staying at cabins in different state parks while you hiked and paddled their grounds???  Now THAT would be heaven!


Anyway, this is what they call a “lollipop loop” shaped trail.  Get ready now…  What’s coming is going to be at a breakneck pace.  You’ll start with a little descent into the woods – a woods which will seem to become a little more lush and dense with each step you take.  Then you’ll make a left turn to find yourself in another environment, walking on a sandy trail along the edge and near the top of a mountainside.



Now make another little descent and you’ll be walking alongside a rock face which has an interesting column of stone carved out.  This is followed by a stroll under a large rock overhang, and here you’ll encounter a signpost which points out to you that this is a Cumberland Sandwort Protection Area.  This pleasant little plant is endangered because it’s apparently only found in this area of the country and it’s got a very delicate root system.



Now don’t think that the “wow” factor is done with you yet…  It seems nature wanted to blow your mind by throwing everything at you right from the start because once you see some stone steps up ahead you’ll have reached your first trail intersection.  It’s here that you’ll want to head right, and in doing so you’ll be led down to a pretty amazing little waterfall.  Hopefully the rainbow shows up in the picture?



Don’t get confused here like I did though...  As I read it, the book I had (a truly great one on the Sheltowee Trace - seemed to indicate that the path runs directly through here.  It doesn’t.  You’ll want to retrace your steps back up to the main path once you’re done taking in this beautiful area - but by all means, take your time!



When you’re done you’ll climb the aforementioned stone steps and begin arcing to your right around the edge of a rock precipice – the same one which runs directly over the waterfall you just witnessed.  Let me tell you, though, that this is one area where you’ll really need to watch your step!  Just look at this drop – only one step off the path!  It’s like this for much of the day.



Anyway, once you complete this arc you’ll curve left to begin walking along a sandier path, and I found the pine scents in here to be particularly wonderful. At one point, however, I thought I detected a different kind of odor…  Could I be walking near the lair of a large animal?”  I imagined.  I didn’t linger... 


Soon the path deposited me into a forest at the top of the mountain where the trail immediately crossed what looked like a seldom used back-country road.  It then continued further “inland” away from the mountainside, and what ensued was a nice stroll through the woods for the next little while.  There was another point where I got a bit confused, though.  It was one where the path seemed to lead to a little rock overhang but – being distracted by said overhang – I missed a sharp right turn in the path.  All the foliage on the ground had it pretty well camouflaged.  I found my way again by retracing my steps.


Soon you’ll begin to descend again into a lusher environment where you’ll get views like this…





…before you descend into this “hole”…





…to emerge under a cool (literally) dripping rock house where you can rest a while and take in the beautiful surroundings.  At this point you’re not quite half way through the loop.  In fact, the upcoming trail sign will indicate that you’ve got 5.1 miles to go to return to your car back at Highway 154.  It also indicates that the Double Falls Trail intersection is 1.4 miles ahead (Pinnacle Overlook is directly beyond that at roughly 1.5 miles). 


Let me also just mention here (so as not to bore the reader with constant scene-shift descriptions) that from this point to Pinnacle Overlook the scenery will again be in constant flux.  You’ll always be hugging the edge of the ridgeline, but at the higher and more open points you’re again apt to get the feeling that you’re walking amongst eagles’ nests on the sandy path.  These areas are also so open to the elements that many of the trees have been charred by lightning strikes (No wonder they say not to walk along a ridge top in a thunderstorm!).






Meanwhile – in the other more sheltered and receded areas you’ll again be walking amongst the boulders and rock ledges in a very lush, green environment.  Another caution, however:  I’d not chance walking off the beaten path at all out here.  The snakes must absolutely LOVE it!  In fact, I think I probably miss quite a bit on hikes like these because I’m constantly looking down to avoid them.  And, if I do stop – even just to take a picture - it’s not before I’ve thoroughly checked the ground all around me.




Now I’ll be honest and mention that when I got to the Double Falls Trail intersection I decided to bypass it – for today, anyway.  I’ll explore it in the next section of the Sheltowee to coincide with a hike of the John Muir Trail.  I’ve absolutely gotta do that one!  How could any hiker worth his boots possibly pass up a trail named after the legendary John Muir?!?


…and while I’m being honest, I’ll also sheepishly mention that by the time I got to Pinnacle Overlook I actually found it to be somewhat anticlimactic!  Can you believe it?!?  Yes, I’m embarrassed!!!  It’s an absolutely stunning spot, but I guess I’d seen so much already that I was suffering from sensory overload.  That’s the only way I can explain it.  The overlook is actually a large rock outcrop with a magnificent view of the Thompson Creek Gorge below and it would be a great spot for a picnic lunch.  In fact, there is a road which leads up here, but I believe it’s a park road closed to traffic.


Anyway, once you’re done taking in the view you’ll turn around and look to the right of the road.  This is where the path continues.  A single little wooden sign on a tree stump marks the way, but I was to find that after one more open mountaintop view (below) it would be my last of the day.   The bulk of the remaining time on this path was essentially a walk through the forest and for me this was a nice break.  It finally gave me the perfect environment in which to relax, contemplate and digest what I’d seen this day – and was continuing to see.



You’ll quickly reach a couple more trail intersections now in fairly rapid succession.  Both are essentially connector trails to the Rock Creek/John Muir Trail combo, but the first is particularly significant because it’s the continuation of the Sheltowee Trace.  Let me be clear:  on this particular hike I’m doing the Hidden Trail Loop, a hike which incorporates the first few miles of the trace before it veers off to return to the Traces’ origin.  If you’re doing this too, you’ll want to proceed left at this intersection.  However - if you wanted to follow the Sheltowee in it’s entirety you’d head right.


Meanwhile, the second intersection you’ll reach is for the Tunnel Trail and here again you’ll want to proceed to the left, but today something seemed to be amiss...  Tunnel Trail was the one marked with Sheltowee Turtle signs...  (Sheltowee, by the way, is a Shawnee Indian name which means “Big Turtle”, and since this was the nickname they gave to Daniel Boone, the Trace is actually named for Mr. Boone – something one might not realize.  I didn’t at first).


Soon you’ll see an open area up ahead and this is actually a swath of forest that’s been cut away to allow for some power lines.  It’s not immediately evident where the path continues here, but if you walk toward your 1 to 2 o’clock point you’ll connect with it again on the other side. 


Next you’ll reach a dirt and gravel road that you’ll follow to your right to soon arrive at the group camping area of Pickett State Park.  What you’ll want to do here is walk around the left side of this area and then, once you’re almost all the way through the camp, you’ll look to the woods on your left and see that the path continues again through the forest.  This little section will be your last, but make sure that you take a right at that final intersection you come to; otherwise you’ll be taking this hike all over again!  Not that that would be a bad thing!  This is one hike I’d definitely take again and again – just not right away!






This is a pretty remote park and there’s really no easy way to get there, although there are a few different ones.  Personally, I took I75 south from Lexington and got off at the TN63 exit (#141 – and from this point it took me just over an hour to get to the trailhead).  Heading east on 63 I passed through the city of Huntsville just before the route dead-ended at U27.  Then taking a right, I traveled a short distance to the town of Oneida before taking a left on TN297.  There was one point where I went in the wrong direction on this route - when you see a group of 4 site markers (I believe they were colored brown) you’ll want to make a left instead of heading straight. 


From here it’s pretty easy – and pretty – because you’ll dive down into a valley and cross over a beautiful looking Leatherwood Ford and while it does seem like the drive is taking a while, you’ll soon reach a dead-end at route 154.  Take a right, go about 3 miles, and just after the main Pickett State Park entrance on your left you’ll come to the trailhead a little further ahead on the right.  You’ll see signs which clearly mark it and you’ll turn into a parking lot with room for about 5-6 vehicles.