This past Sunday, Christmas Day, my girlfriend Gwen and I took up the challenge of The Wilderness trail near Carthage, Tennessee. One word sums up the experience we found out there in the hills and ravines overlooking Cordell Hull Lake; pain. The weak of heart need not apply that is certain. This trail was a test unlike any I have faced in years. What had been advertised as a 12 mile scenic hike was in reality a 15 mile long trial of endurance, grit, and pain management. By the time we finished some six and a half hours later, I was exhausted demoralized and more than a little angry. I may never return to this trail and hesitate to recommend it to any but the bravest and fittest of weekend warriors. For those that decide to tackle this beast for themselves though I promise you scenery that will take your breath away and Technical ascents that will leave your legs and lungs burning and sore for days after. By the time it is all over you will have found a sense of triumph that will not soon fade.
The trail is a lengthy ride from Nashville, and plan on dedicating most of the day to your adventure. Though featured in a local hiking guidebook this path is first and foremost a horse trail meant to be broken up into segments, taking advantage of the several camping spots strategically located on various hilltops along the lake shore. I cannot over emphasize that you wear appropriate footwear on this trek and pack food. The ascents are brutal and physically taxing; you will soon find your stomach growling and your body begging for fuel if you do not. Right out of the gate we found the trail surface to be a mix of muddy quagmire and broken fields of rock and rubble covered over by a dense carpet of fallen leaves in places. Footing was tricky and slick especially on the downhill sections and those without good traction will soon find themselves on their rear and taking the fast way down. In several places the trail climbs nearly vertical up hillsides and out of gullies, again traction is key here. My Adidas trail shoes had a cleated bottom and mud release soles allowing me to use them like crampons on ice. They were also waterproof and kept out the thick dark mud.
Another point to make about this trail is if you have recently injured or otherwise aggravated your legs I would not even attempt it. Two weeks ago I hyper-extended my knee on another trail and though I felt it healed and recovered it was soon screaming and felt on fire. By the end of the first six miles I could barely bend it and welcomed the next section of flat terrain with open arms. Trails like this are great examples of why lunges are such powerful conditioners for obstacle racing and trails in general. I cannot count how often I was forced to climb up and over rocks and obstacles on this trail relying on one leg to support my whole body weight while the other searched for traction and a solid foothold.
Over all I feel that the scenery and vistas justified the pain and work. Within a mile of first beginning you are quickly climbing a steep rocky hillside overlooking the lake from the top of sheer bluffs. This routine would play out repeatedly through the afternoon as we climbed then descended one hill after another separated by rock-cut streams and meandering paths through bamboo and cedar thickets. The trail is badly marked and many of the guideposts and mile markers have, faded, fallen off or otherwise disappeared. In general though; a little patience and common sense will keep you moving in the right direction. The trail is located on a narrow slice of land bordering the lake and its many inlets. Remember to keep the water to your left and pay attention to the ground and watch for the scars and scratches covering the rocks beneath your feet from the passage of hundreds of horses. The trail starts at a campground and works its way west along the lakes southern shore. Bring a compass and keep this in mind and you should do fine. Consequently I would recommend doing this trail in the warmer months when more traffic and less leaf clutter would make the path easier to identify and follow.
The last part of the trail follows a local county road for 2 miles before deviating back into the wooded hillsides again and back towards the campground where you begin. We however could not find or locate the area where the trail leaves the road and ended up following Huff Hollow Lane back out again for nearly six winding miles, up and through a wooded hollow and back down into the valley and lake. This last part on pavement was especially punishing to my throbbing joints and added three more miles to the length of our journey and my feet were soon numb and blistered. When at last we returned to the campground we had left that morning I was relieved, and ready to drop. Not since my time in the Marines have I felt so completely exhausted and weary.
We were both wearing packs equipped with hydration bladders and also carried an extra bottle of water. In addition to this we packed some protein bars and homemade oatmeal cookies for energy and carbs. I also brought an extra pair of socks, a first aid kit with moleskin and bandages and for an emergency toilet paper and matches secured in a waterproof bag. This would be a great location for camping and swimming. There were several secluded campsites perched on top of bluffs and summits along the way. The many inlets were fed by clear streams winding their way through rocky gorges down to the lake shore and I imagine they would be a welcome way to cool down in the summer heat. Next weekend we will be on another trail but it will be some time before I forget my afternoon in the wilderness.