Cherokee National Forest

Stop in Hartford and Start a Journey into Cocke County’s Recreation Heartland

Welcome to Your Wild & Woolly Destination for Wilderness, Whitewater & Open-Air Wonderment

Exit 447 along I-40 about 14 miles south of Newport doesn’t really look like much on a map. But this wide spot in the road just five miles from the TN-NC state line is brimming with all manner of nature-based activities to please outdoor recreation enthusiasts.

Hartford, Tennessee has become a magnet for adventure seekers. It offers a range of sensory stimulation suggestions that’ll ignite your spirit of exploration and set you on a course for seeking more of everything the waters, woods and wild landscapes of Cherokee National Forest and the Great Smoky Mountains have to offer.

With genuine hospitality and an eagerness to please those with a predilection for embarking on outdoor excursions, Hartford invites visitors to embrace an escape into the wonders that abound in the mountains and valleys all around.

Hiking: Backpackers and day trekkers can go trail stepping along countless footpaths and arboreal alleyways that wind through primeval forests and past falling water, leading to an abundance of awe-inspiring vistas and innumerable hidden treasures of nature.  Want to get your feet on the Appalachian Trail?  You can do that in Hartford.

Rafting: The Pigeon River, with its roiling freestone currents and rough-and-tumble rapids, promises to swamp you with invigoration. Trip Advisor recently featured the Volunteer State’s most adrenaline churning river-running put-in points, and Hartford topped the list. For that matter, it’s regarded as one of the most praiseworthy whitewater joyride jumping off spots in America, if not worldwide. Expert guides navigate you through Class III and IV rapids, ensuring a delightfully soggy but assuredly safe experience.

Ziplining: The 37753 zip code offers the kind of thrill-filled airborne escapade you’d normally associate with an amusement park. But on this ride, you can experience the weightless sensation of flight while immersed in nature’s wonders. Get familiar with a bird’s eye perspective on the landscape below as you soar through the tall temperate rainforest canopy, suspended by a harness from which you will be held safe and harmless.

Fishing: Sink a line in the pristine rivers and many gurgling high mountain creeks surrounding Hartford. A variety of gamefish species inhabit these scenic waters, providing ample hook-setting opportunities for action-seeking anglers. Lay back and reconnect with nature as you lazily await a twitch of the rod tip. Or get hyper-focused and hone your fly casting skills as you try to entice a hungry trout or bass to burst the surface and slurp up a hand-tied bug you’ve pitched into the strike zone.

Biking: Strap on your helmet, mount your trusty steel-and-titanium steed, and pedal into an exhilarating network of bike trails  and more planned for in the backwoods forest service roads around Hartford. From mellow slow-roll meandering to intensely sheer gravity-fueled down-mountain descents, Hartford’s rugged terrain beckons mountain biking enthusiasts of all skill and age levels.

So whether you’re looking for a chill weekend getaway or a thrill-charged vacation of a lifetime, the endless opportunities for hiking, camping, fishing, rafting, zip lining, and mountain biking make Hartford a gateway where exhilaration and rejuvenation are always available in a heartbeat.

Discover your next adventure here.

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Amongst the Rhododendrons

I really love camping. That’s a statement not all too uncommon by many outdoors enthusiasts. There’s a certain freedom that exists with temporarily laying claim to a spot of earth and spreading out your basic necessities for a period of a few days. For a small fee, and sometimes no fee at all, you can embrace nature from the comforts of a tent.

Recently, I took a long weekend to explore the remote beauty of Martha Sundquist State Forest. This little-visited wooded area in Cocke County is almost fully surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest. Like so many of the country’s best destinations, this area is remote and mostly without cell service. Getting into the state forest requires following some windy single-lane roads and even through a small creek. What off-the-path destination isn’t complete without a creek crossing!

Before venturing to the forest, I made a stop at The Bean Trees restaurant in Hartford. Located right on the Pigeon River, The Bean Trees probably has the best burger in all of the county. Knowing that I would be deep in the woods for a few days, I wanted to get one last big meal and some hot coffee at the adjacent cafe. I sat on the deck overlooking the river and began daydreaming about the relaxing long weekend ahead.

Plugging in the address of the park into my phone’s GPS, I began the 30-minute drive to the first entrance. I found myself daydreaming about a life out here tucked away nestled between the bubbling and fragrant flowers. Though creature comforts aren’t far away, it really does feel like you’re disconnecting from society as you drive along. Houses become fewer and fewer as the road becomes more narrow.

I crossed the small creek at the entrance, an easy feat for my SUV, and almost immediately found my campsite for the first night. The spot was like something out of a nature book. Rhododendrons surrounded the campsite in a semicircle with an opening in the middle revealing a rippling creek. Stones rounded by countless years in the creek created the perfect sitting spot to enjoy the cool water after a hot day and long drive. Setting up camp was quick and even though the campsite was next to the main road in the forest, I never saw another vehicle pass.

Nighttime presented itself with a quick drop in temperature. This gave me the opportunity to light my first campfire of the year. There’s something very special about sitting by a campfire and getting lost in the dancing flames. I was seeking out solitude in the woods and I had found it.

The next morning, I set out to hike within the forest. I left my vehicle at the campsite and started down the gravel road to the main trailhead and park map kiosk. In keeping with the theme of solitude, I still hadn’t seen another soul. There was a sense of calm mixed with the twinge of adventure with knowing that I had this quiet, beautiful place all to myself.

The park map displayed several trail options and I chose to combine two. The Horse Route is a 9-mile trail that loops the perimeter of the forest. I started out on that trail and was immediately met with my first creek crossing. In true fashion for the trails throughout Tennessee and North Carolina, the bridge was a log split in half to create a perfect path across the water. It even had a knotted handrail perfect for balancing while taking stunning photos perfect for making your Instagram followers jealous.

The path continued on, and within a mile I turned off onto the TN Gulf Trail. The 3.5-mile point-to-point trail immediately engulfed me in its rhododendron tunnel. I spent the hike continually stopping next to the creek that followed by my side and taking in the sounds of rushing water over rounded rocks. It was hypnotic, calming, and perfectly cold to the touch.

After looping back on the other side of the Horse Route, my hike for the day was complete. Seven miles stretched out over several hours felt both leisurely and not long enough. I kept with the slow pace of the day and took my time making a meal back at the site. Though I was definitely hungry, there was no need to rush the experience. My loose plan for the next day was to stay at the campsite and write all morning while sitting by my private creek. I knew that would round out the ultimate solitary excursion in the woods.

Nighttime approached and the symphonic sounds of creatures all around signaled that the day was coming to a close. I felt privileged to be the only person around experiencing all that the forest had to offer. It was providing me with something that is increasingly harder to find – escape from the pressures and duty of everyday life. Sleep hit quickly thanks to the long hike, warm sleeping bag and fading thoughts of a backcountry trip not too far from civilization and yet perfectly withdrawn from the world.

Greg Wingo is the owner of ROAM Projects, an outdoor recreation consulting company. He is the race director for Great Alabama 650, the longest annual paddle race in the world.

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