Off the Beaten Path: Who gets to use Tennessee River Gorge Trust land?

We went by boot, snake gaiters strapped to our shins. Alongside the narrow canyon road, there was no beaten path so Executive Director Rick Huffines and I climbed through honeysuckle then started up a shallow creek, scrambling over mossy boulders.

FFFT! Splash! THUD!

Rick went down, dead-legging himself on a sharp stone. He winced, rubbed his thigh then stiffly got to his feet. Tomorrow he would surely have a gnarly bruise. Still, it would be a small price to pay for what was a half mile ahead: a 15-foot wide waterfall cascading out from a rock wall.

The Tennessee River Gorge is full of wild discoveries.

Last month, Rick and I boated around the river gorge in search of the Louisiana Waterthrush, a songbird currently in decline due to a number of factors related to breeding and wintering habitat. Though we did not find evidence of the Waterthrush that day, since then, TRGT field technicians have not only located the bird, but have managed to attach geolocators on 16 of them—small lightweight data loggers that record ambient sunlight to help determine the bird's location on each day for a year.

One of the most recently tagged Waterthrush was nesting alongside the very creek we were exploring—which was how Rick first became privy of the waterfall. When we approached the nesting site, Rick lowered his voice and moved us out of the stream to avoid disturbing the birds—thus illustrating a common quandary faced by TRGT.

How does the Trust manage its property while considering the interests of the Waterthrush, the unspoiled waterfall, and, of course, people too?


“Everyone enjoys nature differently,” said Rick.

For some, enjoying the outdoors means a picnic in an open greenspace. Others want to bushwhack across unexplored tracts. Both activities are permitted on TRGT property—it is only a matter of permission. If you spot a TRGT boundary marker near an area you wish to explore, simply call the number (423-266-0314) and ask.

But keep in mind the answer may not always be yes.

Say you and a couple friends want to hike to see a waterfall. Then the answer is usually yes, says Rick.

If you want to hunt deer? No, he says. Fishing and hunting have not yet been approved by the board at this point.

If you and 15 family members want to plan a wildflower walk? Sure, says Rick... Though, in that case we would offer to lead the group excursion to prevent damage to any delicate ecosystems along the way.


“Just call us and tell us what you want to do and who is coming with you,” says Rick. “Maybe send us a text when you get there, a text when you leave, so we know your visit went well.”

And watch out for snakes and slippery rocks, of course. After all, part of nature's allure is the element of surprise.

When Rick and I finally arrived at the waterfall, we found it glittering like a cracked geode. The morning sun streamed through the canopy, casting a rainbow on the water so bright I bent into the cold spray to try to touch the colors. Dusky salamanders scooted past my toes and slipped beneath stones.

Rick believes the value of the outdoors is only increased through exploration, and that these sort of discoveries are worth more when they come unexpected.

Cheek cheek! Cheeck cheek! a bird called overhead.

“That’s him,” said Rick. The Louisiana Waterthrush. Against the lulling rush of water, we took out our binoculars and watched the bird hop from branch to branch, calling cheek cheek!

“That is its alert call,” said Rick. “It is the bird's way of saying, 'Somebody is here!'”