With cloudless blue skies, cool days and trees bourgeoning with bursts of deep red, sizzling orange and sunflower yellow, fabulous fall is here. Perhaps no other time of year is as encouraging for getaways to the great outdoors. But, while the Smokies and the Blue Ridge Mountains call, oftentimes no one answers at inns, B&B’s or even sprawling, grand old hotels. The last-minute leaf looker all too often can find no pillow to rest on, unless it’s packed along with a tent. So, for the spur-of-the-moment decision to head for the fall-splashed hills, Monteagle Mountain, a little more than an hour southeast of Nashville, can be the perfect solution.
Perched at 2,000 feet, Monteagle wears Mother Nature’s artistry with casual grace. A direct shot east out Interstate 24, the area is a very doable day trip. For the hikers or the wannabes trails abound. South Cumberland Recreation Area, which encompasses 16,000 acres across four countries, offers myriad trails, many of which are in the Monteagle area.
Perhaps the star is Fiery Gizzard, a 17-mile one-way trek that feels as though moccasins, rather than hiking boots, should adorn the sojourner’s feet. From its north entrance in Grundy Forest State Natural Area near Monteagle, the rocky trail serves as companion to rushing creek spewing white foam over jagged rocks as it scampers, and then delves into deep crevices edged by mountain laurel and hemlock. Past steep rock faces chimney stacks of stones and falls that crash into a swimming hole begging a summer swim. Fiery Gizzard is easily one of the most beautiful and diverse trails in the state.
Its length prohibits completion in a day, but for day trippers, even a couple of hours on the trail serves as time travel back to distant days when Native Americans silently strode these dense woods. For the less adventuresome, the 20-mile Perimeter Trail near Sewanee, just a hiking boot away from Monteagle, offers easy treks that allow you to do as little or as much as you like. Route choices are marked by blue for basic enjoy-the-sunshine-dappled-trail and fall colors, white for those inclined to take the road less traveled. For either, within easy distance is Greens View, a spectacular summit with a view akin to that from a plane.
For the day tripper who enjoys autumn from the comfort of a car, a spin through Monteagle’s Assembly is another nugget of time travel. The gated community is a collection of about 165 century-old Victorian homes relaxed like old friends along the bumpy gravel roads that loop through the 96-acre enclave.
Monteagle Assembly was created in the late 1800s, both as a mountain escape from summer city heat and also as a Chautauqua. This religious and educational movement begun in upstate New York by John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller was somewhere between revival meetings and country fairs. Chautauqua’s were created as eight-week summer programs that offered secular and religious instruction. Attended by thousands each year throughout America and Europe in the late 19th century, only 13 of the original exist today. Monteagle Assembly is among them.
The Assembly, during “the season” that commences in June and ends in August, is a beehive if activity. There are kids riding bikes or splashing barefoot in streams and families socializing on front porches of homes they’ve owned for generations. But out of season, the quiet is interrupted only by the splat of an occasional tennis ball in play or the crunch of gravel beneath sole or tire.
The Victorian “cottages” range from grand to humble, but all are home to maples, oaks and dogwoods ripe with fiery fall color and feathery hemlock green with envy.
For the day tripper who longs to stay, stroll or sit a spell in a rocker on one of the seemingly endless wraparound porches, Adams Edgeworth Inn is just the ticket, provided long-range planners have not beaten you to the hammock or porch swing. The sprawling yellow Victorian dates back to 1896 and has 14 rooms and at least that many emerald green rockers on its porch.
As glorious as Mother Nature’s canvas is in Monteagle and Sewanee, it’s not the only art in town. A smattering of shops and galleries exist. In Monteagle, Mountain Outfitters offers outdoor wear at discount prices. In Sewanee, a health food store and a couple of eclectic shops are chock-full of everything from Vera Bradley bags to soaps to lamps to table linens.
And just what would a day trip be without sustenance? Several restaurants offer the chance to satisfy the hunger developed in the crisp mountain air. Among them is Jim Oliver’s Smoke House Restaurant, Lodge and Trading Post. Originally built by Jim Oliver and is now owned and operated by his son, JD Oliver, and daughter, Betsy Oliver. The Smoke House offers great southern cookin’ either on their full menu or hot food buffet and salad bar with real bacon crumbles.
The Best Western Smoke House Lodge offers double queen or king rooms. Nestled on over 25 acres are the 21 timber frame & log cabins. Each cabin features a real working fire place, a full kitchen and Jacuzzi. The Smoke House also has a five bed family cabin.
One can find treasures of all kinds at The Smoke House Trading Post. Antiques, T-shirts, Sauces and Salad dressings, coffee and coffee cups, souvenirs and little gag gifts. Road Kill in a Can and Moon Pies are just some of the great items found in The Trading Post. The homemade fudge comes in 16 varieties is worth a sample or two along with a few homemade Fried Pies which come in Apple, Apple Cinnamon, Coconut, Pecan, Chocolate, and more. Try a hot Fried Pie with a scoop of their homemade Ice Cream.
For the lunch bunch, Blue Chair Bakery sparkles like sapphire. A gathering place for University of the South students and professors, locals and tourists, this little jewel offers salads, homemade soups and bakery goods well worth toting home. Waffles on weekend mornings spur even late-night student revelers to crawl out of bed for breakfast.
Home to those students, the University of the South, is itself worth a visit. With stone edifices that could as easily be in England as rural Tennessee, the campus is stunningly, hauntingly beautiful in any season.
Whether the magic of autumn stirs the soul toward romp and adventure or a leisurely soak in its glory, Monteagle Mountain offers a day trip or an overnighter, just 85 miles but light years away.
TRAVEL Sun., Oct. 26th
The mountain far away: That’s the feel, but the distance to Monteagle is only an hour.