The issue involves the owner of a portion of the trail near Raven Point,who has requested the removal of the park trail from his property by Dec. 1. The loss of the trail will also mean the closing of the popular Raven Point Campground, also on private land.
Click here to view a map of the changes.
The trail is a 12.5-mile connector between Foster Falls and Grundy Forest Trailhead that was voted among the top 25 hiking trails in the U.S. by Backpacker Magazine in 2015. It is also considered one of the best foliage hikes in the nation.
In full emergency mode, officials with FSC and South Cumberland State Park are seeking volunteers to help with rerouting a 1.5-mile portion of the trail around private land. A series of meet-ups have been created with volunteer opportunities both on weekends and throughout the week.
However, the proposed changes will make the trail much more strenuous for hikers, with an 800-foot elevation drop in the gorge.
According to the interim park manager, George Shinn, the reroute will involve a steep decline; replacement of large rocks; and switchbacks into the gorge, across the creek and up the other side.
“We’re basically creating a new trail that is going to be about a mile and a half long,” Shinn said. “Essentially, we’re building staircases with rocks, and it goes down to 800 feet. And then we’ll need to come back up the other side. It’s rugged and steep. But if we’re going to continue to have a through hiking trail on the Fiery Gizzard, then this is what has to be done.”
Two bridges will also need to be constructed over the Fiery Gizzard (creek) to complete the trail. Shinn said this would need to be completed by February in order to keep the trail open through the spring-although he said this was unlikely and that he anticipates an extended closure of the connector trail.
Margaret Matens, director of marketing for the FSC, said the group will work hard to complete as much of the trail work as possible before Dec. 1. But she also stressed that the rest of the park is still available for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy.
“It’s very important to realize the Fiery Gizzard hiking area is still fine,” Matens said. “You can park at [Grundy Forest] and hike for miles and miles. The same is true for Foster Falls. The 12.5-mile trail that connects those two is in question. Each end of the park is fine and accessible.”
Volunteers are encouraged to sign up for the meet-ups and gather at the Fiery Gizzard Trailheadin Tracy City. Sturdy shoes, water and snacks are encouraged. Guests can also bring a favorite tool or pair of gloves to help clear the rough terrain.
Clickhere to volunteer.
For decades, park officials have relied on handshake agreements with property owners for use of the trail system. Problems arise when land is sold or passed on to heirs. When those relationships are broken, situations like this are bound to occur, officials said.
“Since the ’70s, the park has operated this trail in partnership with numerous private owners, and we have worked hard to maintain strong relations,” Shinn said. “Because of safety and liability issues, the state cannot operate without formal agreements … and we are hopeful we can persuade those involved to agree to a partnership … that will allow the trail and campground [to remain] open.”
Currently, Raven Point Farm is on the market for double the appraised value of the land, according to FSC President Latham Davis.
“The FSC [has] had many successes in acquiring key tracts of land and conservation easements,” Davis said. “We have good relations with many landowners adjacent to the park, which makes this event on the Fiery Gizzard Trail so puzzling and distressing.”
One option would be for an individual or group to purchase the property, but neither the state nor FSC is willing to do that at an inflated price.
“You can’t set the precedent of paying more than the appraised value, because going forward this will cause other landowners to expect the same inflated prices,” said Mary Priestly, past president of the FSC and author of “Fiery Gizzard: Voices From the Wilderness.” “A major concern is that this tract could be sold to a developer, ruining the pristine nature of the trail forever.”
Other portions along the trail have recently gone to heirs, raising concerns that similar situations will begin to crop up.
“For right now, the other landholders are basically adhering to a verbal agreement,” Shinn said. “We’re working hard because the state doesn’t want to lose the Gizzard. Thankfully, our administration and [FSC] are just great. They can advocate and help us fight for the future.”
South Cumberland State Park is about a 50-minute drive from Chattanooga. Click here for directions.