On a map, Prentice Cooper State Forest is a green island to Chattanooga’s west, blanketing the banks of the Tennessee River and the bluffs of Walden’s Ridge. The forest protects nearly 26,000 acres and highlights the spectacular Tennessee River Gorge, offering a range of recreational opportunities for those who enjoy exploring Chattanooga’s natural landscape.
“Prentice Cooper’s trails are located along the Tennessee River Gorge, which is what makes this forest unique,” Jim Lane, Prentice Cooper State Forest supervisor, said. “Most of our trails follow the bluff lines and offer spectacular views.”
The property for Prentice Cooper was purchased from various owners between 1938 and 1944 and was proclaimed a state forest in 1945. The area was named for William Prentice Cooper Jr., who served as governor of Tennessee from 1939 to 1945.
Today, activities within Prentice Cooper State Forest include timber management, wildlife conservation, forest research and all forms of recreation: hiking, rock climbing, camping, horseback riding, mountain biking, ATV and dirt bike trails, and hunting. The forest has five full-time staff members, which operate out of the fire tower on Suck Creek Mountain in Marion County, Tenn. Two TWRA staff members are also dedicated to the forest.
Prentice Cooper State Forest offers 35 miles of hiking on three main trails: the 12-mile Pot Point Loop Trail, the 10-mile Mullen’s Cove Loop Trail and a 14-mile section of the Cumberland Trail.
Prentice Cooper makes up the southernmost section of the Cumberland Trail, a 190-mile trail system that traverses the Cumberland Plateau from Cumberland Gap National Historic Park in Kentucky to its southern terminus on Walden’s Ridge. Parking at the trailhead can be found at Signal Point on Signal Mountain. Overnight parking is not allowed at this parking lot.
Both loop trails—Pot Point Loop Trail and Mullen’s Cove Loop Trail—intersect with the Cumberland Trail. Trailheads and parking for the loop trails begin at the Cumberland Trail parking lot located within Prentice Cooper State Forest on Suck Creek Mountain. Another parking area is available about three miles past the Cumberland Trail parking lot within the forest. Overnight parking is allowed in both areas.
Some sightseeing highlights within the forest include an overlook at Snooper’s Rock along the Mullen’s Cove Loop Trail; Indian Rock House, one of many archeologically significant rock outcroppings found within the forest, located at the junction of Mullen’s Cove Loop Trail and the Cumberland Trail; a natural bridge along the Pot Point Loop Trail; and a 225-foot swinging bridge along the Cumberland Trail, which passes over North Suck Creek to US-27.
In 2008, 457 acres within the forest were added to the National Historic Register: the ruins of the Shake Rag community, a former mining town established in the 1880s at the base of Hicks Mountain by McNabb Mines. Permanently abandoned in 1905, the site is considered one of the most intact historic archaeological sites relating to 19th-century mining in the state. Some of Shake Rag’s ruins are visible from Mullen’s Cove Road.
In 1989, a 350-acre area within the forest, the Hicks Gap Natural Area, was designated a state natural area in order to protect the large-flowered skullcap (Scutellaria montana). The area’s dry and open conditions provide optimum habitat for the federally threatened species. Hicks Gap is located off Mullen’s Cove Road on the side of Hicks Mountain.
Prentice Cooper is also home to a premier rock climbing area in the Southeast: the Tennessee Wall. Located off the Pot Point Loop Trail, the Tennessee Wall—also known as T-Wall—is a stretch of sandstone cliffs on Walden’s Ridge that reach about 100 feet in height. It can be accessed from a trail off Mullen’s Cove Road.
Camping is permitted on a first-come-first-served basis at two designated primitive campsites within the forest: Hunter's Check Station and Davis Pond. Both campsites can be accessed by roads within Prentice Cooper State Forest on Suck Creek Mountain. Additionally, five backpacking campsites are available along the hiking trails within the forest.
With more than 70 miles of dirt and gravel roads, Prentice Cooper is a playground for mountain biking, horseback riding, dirt biking and ATVs. However, unauthorized off-road travel is strictly prohibited, and roads are closed to motorized vehicles during the winter (Dec. 20 to March 15) in order to minimize impact during the wet season.
Prentice Cooper’s expanse of land supports a wide range of wildlife. According to Lane, even the occasional black bear passes through.
“Sometimes, we spot a bear coming through the forest from other sections of the state, but there are no resident bears that we know of,” he said.
The section of Prentice Cooper east of Highway 27 is a designated wildlife management area, managed in cooperation with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency for deer, turkey, raccoon, squirrel and several nongame species. Managed turkey and deer hunts are held each spring and fall, and only licensed hunters are allowed in these areas of the forest during hunts. Hunting is permitted according to statewide regulations in areas outside of the wildlife management area, which is primarily in the Signal Mountain section and east of Suck Creek Road.
Lane advises the public to call the Prentice Cooper offices or check the website for hunting closure dates before making plans to visit.
Timber within the forest is also managed on small plots averaging 20 acres at a time, Lane said, with a maximum of 140 acres a year cut within the forest as a whole. Cut areas are re-established through natural regeneration and the planting of native trees.
“Our goal is to provide a sustainable forest that will provide wood products from the forest forever, while also enhancing wildlife habitat, recreation, research and education,” he said.
Prentice Cooper State Forest does not have a visitors center; however, their offices are located off Suck Creek Drive on Suck Creek Mountain. Trail maps can be found online at www.cumberlandtrail.org, and printed versions are available at the office by calling 423-658-5551.
Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist living on Walden’s Ridge, whose writing interests include conservation, outdoor travel and sustainable living. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.