‘ParkSmarts’ Trail Mile Markers at South Cumberland State Park

To help visitors have a better sense of what awaits them during a visit to the South Cumberland State Park (SCSP), the Friends of South Cumberland, SCSP’s support group, has been working with park managers on a multi-faceted campaign to improve visitor preparedness and locational awareness.

The initiative consists of a new information program, known as “ParkSmarts,” which aims to better inform park visitors about the layout of the park, information about its various trails, and things to see and do from each of the park’s 12 trailheads.

According to SCSP Manager George Shinn, rangers at the park perform 1.6 visitor rescues per week. The 31,000-acre wilderness park, near Monteagle, has over 85 miles of backcountry trails, and park visitors, often unfamiliar with the ruggedness or length of the trail network, become disoriented, lost after dark, or injured (sometimes seriously).

“We have over 650,000 visitors per year,” Shinn said, “and our park is becoming increasingly popular, especially as many individuals and families have discovered us as a great getaway during COVID-19. However, some of our guests are not aware of the vastness and challenges of the park, which results in their needing a ranger-assisted rescue, often times at night or during bad weather.”

“This park is vast; our trailheads are scattered across an area larger than Metro Nashville,” said ParkSmarts team lead and Friends volunteer Rick Dreves. “There are amazing things to be seen and experienced at every one of them, but as a wilderness park, the trails can sometimes be challenging, and visitors need to do their homework and plan their visits before they arrive. We hope the ParkSmarts information will be useful to visitors, and help them have a safe and enjoyable visit.”

Dreves said that much of SCSP consists of deeply forested river canyons surrounded by beautiful sandstone cliffs, with many waterfalls, great hiking, rock climbing and backcountry camping opportunities. “Many of these canyons are over 800 feet deep, and to access all the amazing things they offer, visitors need to be prepared to descend into or climb out of them on our trail network. A rugged 800-foot elevation change can be challenging to the first-time visitor. That’s why we’ve put a great deal of information about each trail, including mileage and difficulty information, on our website at <www.FriendsOfSouthCumberland.org/park-smarts>.”

Another aspect of the ParkSmarts campaign is the installation of new trail mile markers, a series of medallions posted along SCSP trails at half-mile intervals, to help visitors gauge their progress, and be able to accurately report their location if they become lost, injured or need ranger assistance for any reason.

The park’s Friends group has spent this winter carefully measuring and posting the nearly 85 miles of trail in the park, and hopes to complete the trail marking system by early spring. The Tennessee Trails Association provided a grant to help fund production of the nearly 400 mile markers needed to cover the park.

“Having a way for our visitors to accurately let us know where they are is invaluable in a search-and-rescue operation,” said SCSP Assistant Manager Bill Knapp. “Particularly after dark, if they can tell us which mile marker they are near, that can save us valuable time in locating them and helping get them out of harm’s way. It’s especially critical if someone is injured or suffering from hypothermia, which is not uncommon here for much of the year.”

Bruce Blohm, who heads up the Friends’ Trails Team, says the trail marking system began making a difference even before his team of volunteers has finished posting all of the mile markers.

“The first couple of weeks after we began posting the markers, our rangers were already getting calls for help, where the visitors were able to tell them exactly where they were, thanks to the mile marker system,” Blohm said, adding that each mile marker is attached to a tree or post along the trail, and high-intensity reflectors are mounted above and below each mile medallion.

“The reflectors can be seen from a great distance at night, even by the light from a smartphone, so they are easy for visitors to locate in an emergency situation.”

One limitation of the new system is that not all of the SCSP has a strong cell signal, according to Shinn. “Coverage is gradually improving, but visitors should also know how to safely follow a trail to higher ground, in order to get a cell signal, if the area in which they find themselves doesn’t have good cell signal coverage.”

Shinn said that having a good trail map, either on paper or on the visitor’s phone, is still a most essential part of preparing for a visit to the park. “Not only having the map, but taking time to study it, understanding the distances involved, and the elevation change of the trail, could be critical if an emergency situation were to develop. Knowing today’s sunset time, and monitoring how long it would take you to hike back to the trailhead, are simple but critical actions.”

Shinn, Knapp, Dreves and Blohm offer the following suggestions for a safe trip to the park: dress appropriately for the weather, with layers in the winter, including eye and face protection, and rain gear as appropriate; wear sturdy hiking boots; have plenty of water, high-energy snacks, a first-aid kit, and know how to use it; have several sources of light, such as headlamps; and charge your phone before you head out, but don’t try to use it as a flashlight. On a cellphone battery, that will only last a few minutes, and your phone is more important as your lifeline to call for help, should you need it.

“We’re not trying to scare anyone. We just want our visitors to think about how they should be prepared to experience our vast and beautiful wilderness safely,” Shinn said. “South Cumberland is a one-of-a-kind place that everyone should experience, but plan ahead, and do it safely. Our rangers would much rather be answering your questions about the amazing flora, fauna and geology of our park, than having to rescue you in an emergency situation.”

To learn more, visit <www.friendsofsouthcumberland.org>.