By Joe Tennis
Practically every other day, especially in summer, you can find 33-year-old Zack Dunn dipping his feet in the waterfalls of Goforth Creek.
“We’re out once, twice, maybe three times a week,” says Dunn, a resident of Benton, Tenn. “It can be 100 degrees out here, and you can come here, and it feels 75.”
Goforth Creek lies in the Cherokee National Forest, near the Ocoee River Gorge — the site of whitewater events during the 1996 Summer Olympics — in Polk County, Tenn.
For years, this piece of paradise has also been targeted as the site of a highway to be built through the national forest, a route known as Corridor K.
Proposed for decades, the highway would provide a shortcut between Asheville, N.C., and Chattanooga, Tenn. Plans have called for cutting into the Ocoee River Gorge to build the road. The Southern Environmental Law Center has urged the Tennessee Department of Transportation to turn away from this construction project, and instead improve the existing road, thereby saving the tumbling creek and popular spot for hiking, camping and trout fishing along the Ocoee Scenic Byway.
Goforth Creek plunges through a thick forest of pines and rhododendron, splashing its way to the Ocoee River on a path used by experienced kayakers who consider this a Class V challenge.
A hiking trail bordering Goforth Creek overlooks the water while spying on wildflowers, rounded river rocks and intriguing outcrops. Almost constantly, the creek ripples over rocks and boulders.
“Play in the water, throw rocks, just relax,” Zach Dunn suggests. “We don’t rush through here. It takes us 30 minutes to walk maybe half a mile, because we’re just looking at everything.”
A small stream joins the creek after the first half-mile. Then, for several yards, the trail meanders away from the creek, going up and down a hill.
Next, the path requires hiking through a meadow at what was once a home site. And here? The trail practically disappears.
Ultimately, the trail re-emerges as the creek appears — again — in a shady sanctuary that is popular for camping.
Hiking this upper portion of the trail requires fording Goforth Creek, which can be especially fun on warm summer days. Beyond the creek-crossing, the trail slips through a lush field of ferns and leads to a variety of spur trails to explore.
All told, it’s about one mile to hike the trail from the asphalt of U.S. 64/74 to the verdant fern garden.
“Once you go around the curve there, there will be offshoots on some of the tributaries,” hiker Phillip Robb says. “Some of them are marked.”
Robb camps out here for up to two weeks at a time. At 42, he is an actor. He has also explored these mountains, zigzagging up hills and climbing rocks. The camper is straightforward when asked what he likes, especially, about these woods.
“It’s the wildlife — the birds, the warbler species, the variety of the birds that you see,” Robb says. “I’m a huge bird-watcher.”
“And this,” he says, holding up a cell phone showing a photo of a copperhead snake. According to Robb, at night crops of copperheads slither down from the rocky ridges above the creek and take up residence along the trail. The one in question had taken up residence under his tent.
“You don’t want a copperhead living under your tent,” Robb says, “but it didn’t get me.”
As for the idea of a road being built at this site, neither Dunn nor Robb are in favor of such an idea.
“It’s peaceful, quiet and cool,” Dunn says.
Robb, meanwhile, says, “There’s enough urban sprawl [already] … and you can walk off on these trails and be by yourself.”
WHERE: Polk County, Tenn., along U.S. Hwy 64, between Cleveland and Ocoee Lake
LENGTH: Varies (main trail runs approximately one mile one-way.)
ACCESS: A gravel parking lot lies on the right side of the creek, with space for about 10 cars. The Goforth Creek Trail begins on the left side of the creek.
DIRECTIONS: From I-75 Exit 20, take the bypass around Cleveland, Tenn., and follow U.S. 64 east for about 25 miles. The trail access lies on the left, just beyond the Ocoee Powerhouse No. 2. Look for the green Goforth Creek sign at the edge of the road.