Chris Irwin has a vision. He looks at the North Cumberland Plateau, a mix of timberland and abandoned strip mines currently operated as a Tennessee Wildlife Management Area, and sees a national park.
“Yes, there are some bad former mining sites in the area. Honestly, the area represents steep slope mining at its worst, and has the landslides to prove it,” Irwin says. “But it’s also a rugged, forested plateau that serves as an important watershed for the New River. In many ways, it’s as majestic and beautiful as the Smokies. The land just looks like a national park.”
Irwin, the staff attorney for the United Mountain Defense, has begun a grassroots campaign to drum up support for turning much of the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area into the New River National Park. The North Cumberland is actually a complex of wildlife management areas—Sudquist, Royal Blue, New River—that covers 146,000 acres of the Cumberland Plateau between Knoxville and Nashville. This portion of the plateau has been a hot spot for strip mining and logging, but is beginning to rebound. Some of the former mountaintop removal sites are now grassy balds with 360-degree views. Elk were reintroduced to the area in 2000. Today, the land is a rugged and remote playground used predominantly by hunters and offroad vehicle enthusiasts. But the land is also ripe for backpacking and hiking. Bookended by two popular state parks, Frozen Head and Cove Lake, the Cumberland Trail Conference is on the verge of completing a 35-mile segment of Tennessee’s long trail that runs right through the middle of the wildlife management area.
Thirty miles of the Cumberland Trail is already on the ground and open for hiking, trail running, and backpacking. The Cumberland Trail Conference calls this section of trail the New River segment, and describes it as some of the wildest, most remote terrain in Tennessee.
“Right now, you could spend three days backpacking the New River segment of the Cumberland Trail and not see another person the entire time,” says Tony Hook, executive director of the Cumberland Trail Conference. Hook has been leading week-long trail building retreats in the area in an attempt to complete the trail from Cove Lake State Park to Frozen Head State Park. Even though this section of trail and the Cumberland Plateau it traverses sits only 30 minutes west of Knoxville, it doesn’t receive a lot of foot traffic, largely because Great Smoky Mountains National Park is such an attraction for Knoxville hikers and backpackers.