The longest unbroken section of the Cumberland Trail is accessible from Cove Lake State Park in Campbell County, Tennessee just off Interstate 75 about 30 miles north of Knoxville.
And in Devil's Racetrack it features one of the quickest jumping off points along a major thoroughfare for enjoying an immediate taste of the sensational scenery that Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau has to offer.
Devil’s Racetrack derives its name from the wickedly steep incline lined by vertically protruding rock outcroppings and sheer drop-offs. The giant perpendicular stone fins -- flipped on their sides and thrust upwards aeons ago as a result of colossal tectonic plate collisions -- has been described as the most prominent geological feature along I-75’s entire run from the Great Lakes to Greater Miami.
Those familiar with East Tennessee hikes often see similarities between Devil's Racetrack and Charlie's Bunyon or Chimney Tops in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park -- or perhaps Cumberland Gap National Historical Park’s Pinnacle Overlook.
Fantastic Photo Finish Line
The steady stream of truck-and-auto traffic barrelling down the freeway is audible along the trail and as it happens lends to the “racetrack” sounds, vibrations and reverberations echoing through the plateau gap.
The trail up the Devil’s Racetrack takes you from well beneath the highway, up past the effusive Triple Falls and deep-green pools of “Little Egypt,” and continuing on to the plateau's soaring heights and tremendous panoramas.
When you step out upon the overlook point and gaze down on the Powell Valley and I-75 below, you’ll invariably experience a sense of accomplishment, and with it a surprising rush of serenity and seclusion -- even though you’re well within view of civilization’s clamor and throngs.
From this vantage the interstate looks small, even insignificant. No longer is the roar and squall and grind and chug of a nation in motion stressful or unnerving: it is instead gently pneumatic, softly hypnotic.
“Round-trip from Cove Lake is a moderate day’s hike and one of my favorites,” reports Marvin Bullock, a Cumberland Plateau hiking enthusiast and Tennessee recreation tourism promoter from White County. “The intense mix of forest vegetation, wildlife, and gradual slope overcomes the noise from the interstate; nature and infrastructure collide – – but the scenery wins. I’ve stood on top and looked down on clouds, birds, and even aircraft.”
You’re a long way from Downtown Anywhere USA up here. And as it happens, a short ways from the plateau’s singular ability to inspire awe in those with an appreciation for stone spines, rock spires and stellar realms of picturesque enchantment. If you’re energized by euphoric overlooks, and revel in flirting with vertigo, these views are worth a visit.
The best trailhead entry point for accessing the path leading up the Devil’s Racetrack is located northeast of the Cove Lake State Park’s boundaries up Shelton Hollow Lane off Loop Road. This is the Triple Falls Trail and it is a little under two miles one way. There’s another trailhead within the park itself, but it requires a longer, more difficult hike along the interstate -- about six miles roundtrip.
Pioneering Trail Along the Plateau
Beyond the overlook at Devil’s Racetrack, the Cumberland Trail extends for another 10 miles or so northeast along the tablelands toward LaFollette.
Ranger Jim Brannon, a Tennessee state park computer mapping specialist, said the hike along the plateau is “kind of like a roller coaster."
"You will be going along and it is flat and then you’ll be going uphill some and downhill some,” he said.
The trek to the southwest from the Cove Lake State Park trailhead covers roughly 40 miles and leads to Frozen Head State Park in Morgan County.
The Cumberland Trail along this stretch contains the highest mountains between the Smoky Mountains and the Black Hills in South Dakota -- so expect some strenuous slogging to accompany the sweeping vistas if you’re traveling in that direction, said Brannon.
“It is more dramatic up-and-down going that way,” he said.
The Cumberland Trail is the first “linear” state park in Tennessee. While the history of the park’s establishment traces back to the 1960s, it wasn’t officially designated as such and brought into the park system until 1998 -- and even today isn’t entirely complete as a through-trail.
When the entire pathway is complete, the Justin P. Wilson Cumberland Trail State Scenic Trail State Park, as it is officially named, will extend more than 300 miles and pass through 11 Volunteer State counties from Cumberland Gap on the Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky border along the plateau to the Tennessee River Gorge, near the Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia border.
An up-to-data map of the trail is available here.
“We are kind of like a dotted line — there are a lot of sections that are open, but it is not continuous yet,” Brannon said.
The Cumberland Plateau is one of the grandest landforms in the Eastern United States, and it is especially magical and steeped in history through its Tennessee run.
Hiking along the trail is enriching and edifying from an abundance of mindsets and perspectives.
“The Trail starts up at the Cumberland Gap National Park, which is famous for the early explorations of Daniel Boone,” Brannon said. “This whole upper area was also quite involved in the Civil War, so there is history there, and music history and industrial -- things like coal mining and ironworks and all types of history.”
“It can be an all-around rewarding experience, depending on how much research and prep work you do beforehand,” he said.
Cove Lake State Park is an ideal place for RV Campers who want quick access off major roadways. The park is just off the interstate.
The 606-acre Cove Lake for which the park was named is actually older than Norris Lake, which can be accessed at a state-park patrolled boat launch just five minutes drive from the park entrance. At times during high water paddlers can access Cove Lake over the dam that separates it from Norris Dam.
The park's campground consists of 106 sites equipped with grills and picnic tables. Six large picnic pavilions are also available for rent.
The park also boasts one of the best barbecue joints in East Tennessee. Rickard Ridge BBQ does the requisite smoked favorites and fixins, but they're especially renowned throughout the territory for their signature chicken thighs and fabulous sweet potato fries.