Tucked away in the southwest corner of Bradley County and just a few miles from Apison, Red Clay State Historic Park offers an opportunity to learn about the region’s Native American history, as well as offers a peaceful setting in which to experience nature.
Covering 263 acres of gently rolling forestland and open meadow—once pastures and cotton fields—the park is the site of the last seat of the Cherokee Nation, between 1832 and 1837. The Cherokee capital was relocated there from New Echota, Georgia, after the state of Georgia banned political activity by the Cherokee. Eleven councils, attended by up to 5,000 people, were held there before the 1838 enforcement of the Indian Removal Act of 1840 resulted in the infamous Trail of Tears event, in which the Cherokee were forced to relocate to Oklahoma.
Earlier in the fall, after a number of years of absence, I paid a visit to Red Clay on a quiet weekday morning. My first act was to hike the 1.7-mile Council of Trees Trail. The trail forms a loop, which can be hiked in a clockwise direction by starting behind the 500-person capacity amphitheater, located uphill to the left of the pavilion. But I chose to hike it in the opposite direction by starting at the trailhead immediately behind the pavilion.
Many years ago, when I lived just a few miles from Red Clay, I would bring my grandmother about once a week to hike the Council of Trees Trail, which has changed very little since then. The trail meanders among rolling hills and narrow valleys through typical deciduous forest, where it’s quite possible to spot the occasional white-tailed deer. In about 1 mile, I came to the highlight of this trail, the imposing stone overlook platform. When the forest is green, the view from the overlook is basically of the surrounding trees, but I recall winter visits with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the eastern horizon.
Upon reaching a trail junction nearly a half-mile beyond the overlook, I encountered a slightly confusing situation. Whereas, according to both my memory and the park’s trail map, the main trail continues straight on to the amphitheater and the Connector Trail goes right, the trail markers indicate that the Connector Trail is now officially part of the Council of Trees Trail. In any case, it doesn’t appear that the physical trail routes have changed.
At this point, I followed the trail to the right for about 0.15 miles through a more bottomland-type forest with pine trees and sections of boardwalk, until it connected to the 0.2-mile Blue Hole Trail. Turning right from the Blue Hole Trail, I skirted the edge of the open meadow to check out the sizable beaver pond I drove past on my way into the park. Here, beavers have created habitat for ducks and other wildlife by damming up the water that flows from the Blue Hole Spring.
Returning across the meadow, I passed several log structures that replicate a farmhouse, barn and corncrib similar to those on Cherokee farms in the early 19th century. There are also three small cabins of the type that served as sleeping huts when the Cherokee met there and a pavilion that depicts the council house used for meetings.
I then visited another of the park’s primary features, the Blue Hole Spring, now referred to as Council Spring on some park maps. The spring, which was the water supply for the Cherokee during council meetings, is a deep, clear pool where a copious amount of water flows continuously from beneath a limestone ledge. The stream eventually flows into Mill Creek, a tributary of the Conasauga and Coosa rivers system.
One of my last stops was a visit to the small stone monument containing the propane-fueled eternal flame. Its plaque states, “This fire is a memorial to those people who suffered and died on the infamous Trail of Tears. It also commemorates the reuniting of the eastern and western Cherokee nations here at Red Clay.” I think the latter is what the plaque’s April 6, 1984, date refers to.
Finally, I stopped by the park’s James F. Corn Interpretive Facility (or visitors center), which houses exhibits on the 19th-century Cherokee, the Trail of Tears and Cherokee art, and features a video theater, a gift shop and a small library.
Overall, I found the park to have changed very little since the days when I frequented it. Now, as then, it’s a great place to learn about an important part of the region’s history, as well as to immerse yourself in nature on a hike through tranquil forests.
Click here for the park’s hours of operation.
Get directions and contact information here.
See a detailed map of the park and its trail system here.
Learn more at Red Clay State Park’s website.
Bob Butters explores nature and the outdoors, primarily in and near the South Cumberland region, and publishes the blog www.Nickajack-Naturalist.com. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.