Sampson Mountain wilderness offers untouched space, expansive views
Thursday, December 5, 2013
Snow blossoms cover Big Butt Mountain in this view from the Middle Spring Trail. Photo by Adam Lau.
Morgan Simmons

GREENEVILLE — There are places in Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest that are every bit as wild and untrammeled as the backcountry of Great Smoky Mountains National Park — but you have to know where to look.

The Sampson Mountain Wilderness, in northeastern Tennessee, is one of 11 wilderness areas in the 640,000-acre Cherokee National Forest where visitors can experience a landscape untouched by recent human intervention. The area covers 7,991 acres and has as its centerpiece Sampson Mountain, which rises to 4,060 feet.

The top of Sampson Mountain was dusted with snow when we hiked there a few weeks ago. Joining us that day were retired Knoxville attorney Will Skelton, a longtime activist for protecting wilderness on public lands, as well as Scotty Bowman, field supervisor for the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, and Pat Byington, the new director of Tennessee Wild.

Starting at the Horse Creek Recreation Area trailhead at the western border of the wilderness area, we did a 5-mile loop linking the Squibb Creek, Turkeypen Cove, and Middle Spring Ridge trails. The first half of this hike climbs to a gap just below the Sampson Mountain ridgetop, and the second half is almost entirely downhill back to the parking lot. Portions of the hike are steep and technical, but the trails are in good shape, and the views are stunning.

From the Horse Creek Recreation parking lot follow the ATV road for .10 mile and take a left at the footbridge over Horse Creek. This puts you on the Squibb Creek Trail to start the hike. A small wooden sign at the start of the hike marks the boundary of the Sampson Creek Wilderness. Over the next .25 mile you’ll cross two more wooden bridges before the trail reaches an A-frame house constructed on a small private inholding in the national forest. Past the A-frame, the trail makes several stream crossings that amount to easy rock hopping unless the water is high.

At .75 miles the Squibb Creek Trail reaches the start of the loop. The Squibb Creek Trail veers right across a rocky streambed, but you’ll want to stay straight at this intersection to begin the Turkeypen Cove Trail, which is marked by a small wooden sign.
The forest becomes more hemlock- and rhododendron-dominated as the Turkeypen Cove Trail follows the deep, narrow folds at the base of Sampson Mountain. As with all wilderness areas, the trails on this hike aren’t blazed. The trail corridor can be tricky to see after the leaves fall, but the route is well-established and discernible the entire way.

About one mile into the Turkeypen Cove Trail, the hiking gets steeper as the trail parallels a water drainage on your left. At 1.15 miles the Turkeypen Cove Trail begins a series of switchbacks up the northwest slope of Sampson Mountain. This is a lovely portion of the hike. Rounding one of the higher switchbacks, you’ll be treated to your first full-on view of Sampson Mountain to the south along the front range of the Unaka Ranger District of the Cherokee National Forest. In the opposite direction (to the north) is the Nolichucky River valley, and the agricultural fields of Greene County.

Next comes a short but steep scramble straight up the prow of the ridge. Mountain laurel hugs the trail, and the trees are gnarled and stunted. Just before the trail levels out along the narrow ridgeline, look for a boulder on the left as a place to catch your breath and take stock of the jaw-dropping scenery.

The Sampson Mountain Wilderness is surrounded by specially protected national forest lands. Looking northeast across the heart of the wilderness area, you can see the roadless area that would expand the Sampson Mountain Wilderness by 2,922 acres under the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2013. The bill, which would add 20,000 acres to five existing wilderness areas in the Cherokee National Forest, has the support of Tennessee’s U.S. senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.

Adjoining the Sampson Mountain Wilderness to the southeast is the newly-protected 10,00-acre Rocky Fork tract. Other neighbors along the North Carolina border include the Appalachian Trail, as well as the Bald Mountain Ridge Scenic Area and Bald Mountain Backcountry Area that combine to create the 11,744-acre Bald Mountain Roadless Area.

“Everything here is protected in one way or another,” noted Will Skelton as he gazed at the unbroken expanse of mountains from the overlook.

At 2.8 miles the Turkeypen Trail climbs through a rhododendron tunnel and comes to a flat, more open section of forest known as Middle Spring Ridge Gap. This is where hikers leave the Turkeypen Trail and head 2 miles down the mountain on the Middle Spring Ridge Trail to complete the loop. From the gap, the Middle Spring Ridge Trail will be on the right, and immediately, the descent is steep and rocky. Big Butt Mountain is the dominant peak on the left. Lower down, the trail follows drainages that grow wider and deeper toward the foot of Sampson Mountain.

After almost 2 miles the Middle Spring Ridge Trail drops to meet a small road. To complete the loop, turn right. After about 200 feet, you’ll reach the junction of the Turkeypen Cove/Squibb Creek trails that you passed at the beginning of the hike. Stay straight after crossing the rocky creek, and it’s .75 miles of backtracking to the parking lot.

Directions: From Knoxville, take I-81 north to Exit 23, the Greeneville exit. Take Highway 11E toward Greeneville. Just past Greeneville, turn onto Highway 107 toward Tusculum College. About 2 miles after passing Tusculum College, turn right to stay on Highway 107 (Erwin Highway). After 5 miles, turn right onto Horse Creek Park Road. After. 8 miles take another right to stay on Horse Creek Park Road. Another 3 miles will take you into the Cherokee National Forest and to the trailhead parking area at the end of Horse Creek Park Road.

Morgan Simmons may be reached at or 865-342-6321.