Chances are you’ve never been there, but Grundy Lakes State Park, on the outskirts of Tracy City, is a great place to experience nature close-up on a short hike. At just under 150 acres, this smaller, lesser-known unit of the South Cumberland State Park is well worth a visit.
In addition to natural features, the park contains the ruins of 130 coke ovens, which were built in 1883 by the Tennessee Consolidated Coal Co. and operated until 1896. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps worked to reclaim the environmentally devastated land and turn it into a recreational attraction.
The focal point of recreation is four man-made lakes of various sizes. Although situated atop the Cumberland Plateau, the lakes are surrounded by forested hillsides rising up another 150 feet or so in elevation. A one-way paved road with a walking lane circles the two largest lakes, providing an easy 2-mile walk on pavement. For the more adventurous, there are 2.3 miles of hiking trail.
Although the trails can be accessed from a number of locations, a good starting point is the main parking lot, on the left by the lower lake shortly after entering the park. A bathhouse, picnic area, playground and swimming beach are adjacent to the parking area.
Walking along the exit drive from the parking lot, you’ll soon come to a small footbridge crossing a stream on the left. This is the 1.3-mile Lone Rock Trail, which circles the lower lake. Immediately after crossing the bridge, a short trail on the right will take you up to the paved loop with its walking lane. Going left on the main trail, you’ll hug the shoreline of the lake, likely getting a glimpse of Canada geese or great blue herons.
Eventually, the trail leaves the lake and climbs the hill up to the dam of the upper lake. Here, the trail crosses on the top of the dam, or you have the option to add a half-mile or so by taking the paved loop around the upper lake and rejoining the trail on the other side. I recommend this, as the road follows close to the shore of the upper lake, providing good chances to see wildlife such as wood ducks, turtles, frogs and fish, as well as the work of beavers.
A small parking area near the dam is a good alternate starting point. A couple of large springs across the road at the upper end feed into the lake. This is the beginning of Little Fiery Gizzard Creek, which eventually flows into the nearby Grundy Forest State Natural Area.
Rejoining the Lone Rock Trail on the other side, it drops down a lengthy set of wooden steps and once again follows close to the lower lake. At one point, you have the option of passing in front of a row of coke ovens that overlooks the lake or taking the main trail a little farther inland. Just before crossing the lower dam, the trail merges with the paved road. If you’ve taken the paved route rather than the trail on this side, you’ll have passed another picnic area with a playground, basketball courts and an exercise station.
Having crossed the dam, the Lone Rock Trail continues across the highway, climbing up the hillside a bit and eventually coming back down to the road across from the main parking lot exit. Another option you have is to follow the relatively flat and straight trail that cuts along an old railroad bed behind the row of coke ovens lining the highway.
Across the highway in the northeast corner of the park are two smaller lakes and another picnic area. Recently, new trail has been added to an existing trail, which follows the shoreline of the larger of the two lakes, creating a 1-mile trail called the Miners Loop. It connects to the Lone Rock Trail just before it crosses the road back to the main parking lot.
South Cumberland State Park hosts a variety of outdoor activities at Grundy Lakes. Outings scheduled for June include a fishing rodeo, a moonlight hike, a nature hike, early morning hikes, an astronomy outing, exploring the creek for critters, canoe floats, volunteer trail work and a Lone Rock Trail hike (which includes an exploration of the coke ovens). Check for currently scheduled activities here.
Grundy Lakes State Park is on Lakes Road, just off U.S. Highway 41 on the east side of Tracy City. The easiest way to get directions is to enter “Grundy Lakes State Park” in the search box on Google Maps. Click here for a topographical map of the Fiery Gizzard Trail. Look at the top of the map (the left side of the screen) for Grundy Lakes.
Bob Butters explores nature and the outdoors, primarily in and near the South Cumberland region, and publishes the blog www.Nickajack-Naturalist.com. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.