Tight deadlines, an untimely 300-acre wildfire and lingering uncertainty about the Fiery Gizzard's future proved no match for hundreds of volunteers over the past 18 months.
An extensive two-phase reroute of the nationally acclaimed Grundy County hiking trail is complete, thanks to a small team of park rangers, hundreds of trail advocates and grant funding. Volunteers from around the region logged nearly 10,000 hours of combined service to move roughly two miles of the trail, accommodating landowners who no longer wanted the Fiery Gizzard cutting through their property atop the Cumberland Plateau.
The effort means hikers will have full spring access to the 13-mile, now more strenuous trail that will take hikers up and down the plateau through a scenic gorge.
"It went as well as possible for having to remove trail and build new trail in a short time," South Cumberland State Park manager George Shinn said.
Shinn and the state's conservation leaders now are working to protect the rest of the trail's traditional route atop the plateau, where the Gizzard still cuts through two parcels of private land, based off decades-old handshake agreements with the property owners.
"We're trying to work with those landowners to allow us to have easements, sell us the property or something so the trail can continue unhindered," Shinn said.
A formal conservation easement or property acquisition would protect the state park from the future whims of the two remaining property owners on the trail's path. But in the meantime, there is a trail to enjoy.
Shinn and Friends of South Cumberland State Park communications director Rick Dreves described the new stretch as one that adds elevation and heavier breathing as well as some new vantage points of natural beauty.
"I think what everybody is really excited about is the re-route is getting down in the gorge, especially in that particular area, because you're crossing one of the bigger canyons there, where McAlloyd Creek comes down," Dreves said. "You actually get to see two new creeks and two new waterfalls."
The trail still features traditional scenic views atop the plateau, but Dreves said the gorge section is a "nice break from being up top."
Lost, however, is the old Raven Point campground. That's where Shinn said a backpacker camped illegally over the fall and started a campfire that got loose and swept through the gorge, burning 300 acres and destroying some of the progress crews had made on the trail's new sections.
With a deadline looming for the re-route to be completed, park rangers and volunteers hustled to reset the new section.
They used a block-and-tackle system to bring quarry stone purchased through grants down from the plateau above. The stone went to create staircases through the sloping terrain, while wooden staircases have been installed in the steepest new areas of the trail.
"A lot of it involved clearing and cutting the trail into the hillside," Dreves said. "The rangers worked with volunteers, and there were some real stalwarts, folks that came back week after week to see it through."
Shinn said the park is still working to figure out a new campground location on the trail for backpackers to stay overnight while they trek the trail's entirety.
He said the loss of the campground is the biggest complaint about the revised Fiery Gizzard. But as for the trail itself, Shinn said the feedback has been positive.
"When you're thinking about building a new trail and you're having to go on difficult terrain, you prepare for a lot of complaints," he said. "So far, no one has complained. Everyone is excited about it. It's a beautiful section. It's hard to believe that the trail didn't do that from the very beginning."
Contact staff writer David Cobb at email@example.com or 423-757-6249.