Soak Creek, a tributary of the Piney River in East Tennessee, has been named Tennessee’s newest Scenic River – the first designation since 2001.
After unanimous bipartisan approval by the State House and Senate, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed legislation adding Soak Creek to the list of 15 state waterways designated as Scenic Rivers. Winding through Bledsoe, Cumberland and Rhea Counties, a specific segment of Soak Creek – from its junction with Georgia Branch near Stinging Falls State Natural Area to its intersection with the Piney River near Piney Falls State Natural Area – received the designation.
“This scenic river designation will preserve and protect the pristine ecology and waters of Soak Creek,” said Deputy Commissioner of Parks and Conservation Brock Hill. “It will also provide a high-quality outdoor experience on the water and hiking trails at the adjacent Justin P. Wilson Cumberland Trail State Park. The opportunities for place-based economic development from tourism in the area have the potential to be significant.”
The push for designation came about from the support of local landowners and with the assistance of The Nature Conservancy, American Whitewater, and the Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation assisted in preparing the bill filed by The Nature Conservancy. Senator Ken Yager and Representative Ron Travis introduced SB2520/HB2566. The State Scenic River designation provides protection to the river without impacting property rights. The designation also promotes public awareness about river stewardship and long-term protection of the river and its corridor.
“As a landowner along Soak Creek and a father of kids who love nature, I am thrilled to see this amazing piece of wilderness receive the recognition it deserves,” said George Lindemann, one of the property owners who supported the project. “I believe we protect the places we experience and it just makes sense to set aside some of these incredible creeks and rivers so everyone has the chance to experience this part of Tennessee.”
This free-flowing creek serves as critical habitat in an area recognized as one of the country’s best remaining examples of a major biotic community. Wildflowers – including the native dwarf milkwort and spotted geranium – are in abundance as well as old growth forests and picturesque waterfalls. Soak Creek is also known as a mecca for whitewater recreational kayaking. Kayakers rate this wilderness paddling route as one of the premier class III-IV runs in the Cumberland Mountains.
“The Soak Creek Scenic River classification will help promote the region as an outdoor recreation area,” said Rob Bullard, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Tennessee/Cumberland Rivers Program. “We hope it will serve as a catalyst for future recreational eco-tourism in East Tennessee.”
The popular Cumberland Trail, which follows a line of pristine high ridges and deep gorges for approximately 185 miles, is proposed to parallel about four miles of Soak Creek. This section of the trail would connect hikers to Stinging Fork Falls State Natural Area, Piney Falls State Natural Area and the 2,000-acre Piney River Resource Management Area of the Cumberland Trail.
“Soak Creek is a truly remarkable scenic river corridor,” said Jane Polansky, administrator of Tennessee’s Scenic Rivers Program. “Here you can enjoy the peaceful sound of free-flowing water while watching a great blue heron fly by. We encourage visitors to come and enjoy this area and the more than 400 miles of scenic waterways in Tennessee.”
For more information about Tennessee’s Scenic Rivers Program, including Soak Creek, please visit https://www.tn.gov/environment/topic/na-sr-scenic-rivers.