Nickajack Cave Wildlife Refuge, TN:
April 1, 2017
Distance: 1 miles
[View Photo Gallery]
I discovered the Nickajack Cave Wildlife Refuge by pure accident one day while researching places to hike around Chattanooga, TN. My real interest in the area was of the Little Cedar Small Wild Area, one of the many hiking spots the TVA maintains along the Tennessee River. Nickajack Cave, however, lies on the opposite south shore of Nickajack Lake, a stone's throw from the namesake dam, which partially flooded it in 1967. The cave itself has a storied history, from it's use by native americans, to being mined for saltpeter during the Civil War, a show cave, and even an infamous visit by Johnny Cash which according to the singer, saved his life. Fenced in 1981, and designated in 1992 as Tennessee's first non-game refuge, the cave itself is now home to a maternity colony of 1000,000 endangered gray bats. The refuge seemed the perfect complimentary hike to the small wild area, and since it'd been a few months since mine and Lulu's last big outing, she joined me for this adventure.
It's worth noting that this is not a federal wildlife refuge, but operated by the TWRA, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. The trailhead for the boardwalk to the cave is located at the Maple View Park Day Use Area. Before hitting the trail, we stopped to take in the view here, Hogjaw Ridge standing prominent to our left shadowing Nickajack Dam, Little Cedar Mountain in the distance to the north, with the rocky Ladds Point of Sand Mountain to the east. Sitting at the base of Sand Mountain as well, Nickajack Wildlife Refuge has an almost 180 degree view of the namesake reservoir, bisected by the L&N line of former Seaboard Coastline fame. It so happened that we were able to photograph one train crossing the waters, providing a gorgeous backdrop. The park had a nice beach area, which even had a few folks swimming on what was a warm spring day. At the trailhead itself was one of the strangest sights I've ever seen. Close to the informational sign about the refuge stood a port-o-potty, and a basketball goal, within 5ft of each other. The initial portion of the trail was a large picnic area right along the shore of the refuge itself before becoming all boardwalk and heading slightly uphill. The view of the lake became obscured as the trail rose on the high bank, retreating into the woods just a hair, which much to my surprise, were barren thus far of any spring wildflowers. I photographed lots of small boulders and the rocky landscape, along with two old metal posts that seemed to once be the foundation for something. My luck would soon turn with the wildflowers, with wood phlox popping up and also spotting the red-purple blooms of redbud trees along the banks which briefly opened up to views of the lake and a great little fishing spot.
The boardwalk did an odd half moon out and around two intermittent drainages which probably sports small cascades here in the winter or after a heavy rain. False anemone, trout lilies, multiple shades of crested iris, and phacelia all called this small area home, too. Passing a short rock wall with lots of different mosses and more phacelia, the land dropped off again, with sweet betsy and twisted trillium blooming along with some sprouting leaves from young sumac. Wood violets, sedum and more false anemome were abundant through here as the boulders along the hillside became more prominent, with small shelters that served as animal dens of some kind. I looked for a way up through some of the social trails, but opted to stay on path, which very quickly ended. The boardwalk wasn't long, barely a half mile from trailhead to the platform overlooking the cave. A wide cave mouth, it would have been something to have seen the scale of the mouth itself before the reservoir was created. The orientation of the viewing area itself obscured part of the cave, though it would be perfect for viewing the bat emergence that happens each night during the summer. One day I'll return with a kayak in tow, though, and explore closer to the cave mouth itself and see the emergence. I found more social trails next to the bench at the platform, and had it just been me, I would have considered venturing on them for a closer view of the cave, as it led out to the small point of a rock outcropping. Instead, Lulu and I headed back toward the car, stopping to photograph cutleaf toothwort and hepatica, a few species I'd missed on the way in. Desperate also to get off the boardwalk and explore, I gave in and let lulu lead me down to the water's edge for her a drink as I took note of a bat swooping low and flying erratically. It's only one of a handful of times I've seen a bat in the daytime before, and I watched as it swooped low to the water, almost as if it were getting a drink itself. In the distance, we also caught view of a bald eagle as it soared across the lake, thankfully also within range for the camera. After a break for lunch, and watching the eagle cross the lake again, we returned to the car and made our way to the second and last stop of our adventure, Little Cedar Mountain Small Wild Area.