The 10 Best Hikes Near Nashville, TN

To see what I consider the best views on the Appalachian Trail in our area (Yes, that includes the balds of Roan Mountain) I recommend a 10 mile challenging circuit looping through the Pisgah National Forest’s Shelton Laurel Backcountry.

September is a great time to visit this area. The skies are normally clear and dry, and you can sense the change of fall in the high country.

The Jerry Miller Trail first leads past an impressive and long 100-foot waterfall, then reaches the former meadow of Whiteoak Flats. A steady climb takes you near Baxter Cliff before joining the Appalachian Trail and Big Firescald Ridge, the protruding knife-edge rock rampart dividing North Carolina and Tennessee. Panoramic 360-degree views extend to distant horizons. The vistas continue for a half-mile before the AT enters wooded slopes. A final, very steep descent down Fork Ridge closes the loop.

Back in 1997, what was the Whiteoak Flats Trail was rerouted and renamed the Jerry Miller Trail. The path was altered to keep it on national forest land, avoiding any potential trespassing problems. What became the Jerry Miller Trail formerly started on the property of the Shelton clan, which had occupied this parcel at the confluence of Whiteoak Flats Branch and Big Creek since the 1790s.

So what does that have to do with Jerry Miller and naming the trail after him? Who is Jerry Miller? Well, Jerry Miller’s mother was a Shelton from this very property. North Carolinian Jerry Miller was raised in both Madison and Buncombe counties, becoming a U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina in the early 1980s. During his tenure, Mr. Miller prosecuted many a case arising from crimes perpetrated in the mountainous Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests.

However, prosecuting criminals doing their bad deeds in our national forests wasn’t always so. Before Jerry Miller’s tenure, the federal government didn’t recognize federal jurisdiction in national forests, leaving enforcement to state and local authorities.

National forests became havens for the lawless, threatening legitimate forest users. The locals charged with enforcing the law were already strapped, trying to maintain order in the rural areas where national forests are typically found.

However, a drunken driving case on the national forest prosecuted by Jerry Miller changed that. After an extended legal tussle, the case went to the Supreme Court of the United States, where the robed ones recognized the federal government’s role in patrolling, enforcing and prosecuting the law in our national forests, adding a layer of protection as we enjoy those millions of acres of wildlands found throughout East Tennessee, western North Carolina and southwest Virginia.

In appreciation of this change in law enforcement, the Pisgah National Forest renamed the Whiteoak Flats Trail for Jerry Miller. At the trail’s beginning there stands a plaque memorializing this man who fought to keep the Southern Appalachians safe for hikers like us.

This 10 mile loop is a hike of superlatives, a big hike with big views from the ridgeline dividing North Carolina and Tennessee, lending open perspective in all directions with the vistas continuing unabated for over a half-mile; a big 100 foot slide cascade waterfall, and big wildflower displays from trillium in the creek bottoms to trout lilies up top.

The hike also has big climbs – it is over 2,000 feet from low point to high point on this circuit. And you must go back down again. And during this downgrade you will drop 1,000 feet in one mile! A part of the hike uses the most big-time trail in East – the Appalachian Trail. Finally, the Jerry Miller Trail was named a big-time hero of America’s national forests.

Furthermore, you can take side trips from this loop to attractions such as Baxter Cliff, Whiterock Cliff, the Blackstack Cliffs and Jerry Cabin trail shelter. Even without these side trips the hike can be long and arduous. Consider starting early to maximize the possibilities. I have backpacked this loop on multiple occasions and consider it one of the best overnight circuits around.

The hike starts by bridging Big Creek then climbs a ridge, keeping on national forest property to then turn up the steep-sided hollow of Whiteoak Flats Branch. It isn’t long before you come to the 100-foot Whiteoak Flat Cascade. This significant slide purges over a widening slope that steepens in a frothy climax into a shallow plunge pool. Boughs of rhododendron escort Whiteoak Flats Branch during this sightly spill.

The Whiteoak Flats Branch valley closes after the falls and you cross the creek on a footbridge. You are now on the left hand bank heading upstream. Shortly enter the meadow of Whiteoak Flats, undergoing succession where pines, tulip trees and brush are overtaking the former homesite. Pass through more formerly farmed territory before rising via switchbacks toward the state line.

And then you come to the AT after bisecting Huckleberry Gap. The wild and stony ridgetop walk astounds once atop Big Firescald Knob. Views are nearly continuous into the mountains and valleys of Tennessee and North Carolina, and is my favorite spot on the AT in this area. If the leaves are off the trees look down and spot the Jerry Miller Trail you just climbed.

Marvel in the Appalachian Trail construction here as a slow-moving path works through the stone backbone amid gnarled brush and trees. A pair of final overlooks delivers views then you roll along the state line ridge, passing the Round Knob Trail before turning back into North Carolina on the often steep Fork Ridge Trail. Keep the brakes on as you dive for Big Creek and FR 111. The final part of the walk traces FR 111 back to the Jerry Miller trailhead and hike’s end.

To get there from exit 50, Flag Pond, on I-26, turn left on Upper Higgins Creek Road, passing under the interstate, traveling .5 mile to TN 23. Turn right onto TN 23 north and follow it for 2.1 miles to TN 352. Turn left on TN 352 west. Enter North Carolina after 4.1 miles. The road becomes NC 212. Continue for 3.2 miles beyond the state line, then turn right on Big Creek Road, near Carmen Church of God. Follow Big Creek Road for 1.2 miles. The road seems to end near a barn. Here, angle left onto Forest Road 111, taking the gravel road over a small creek. Enter the national forest. At .4 mile beyond the barn, veer left onto a short spur road to dead end at Jerry Miller trailhead.

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