Virgin Falls-Know Before You Go

Tennessee Hikes

*All the photos in this post were taken at different times/seasons over several years by me.*

Virgin Falls.

Wow! So much that can be said.

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First: The TRUTH

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Virgin was my first really hard hike. So hard in fact, that after I survived it, I swore that I would never go back. That was about twenty hikes ago. Just goes to show never say never.

My young nephew who had just done several months working for a gold mining company in Alaska talked me into it. He was around 24. I, well, was not.

‘It’s easy’ he said.

‘You’ll be fine’ he said.

TWELVE hours after starting the hike we made it back to my car, in the dark, just in time for the bottom to fall out of the sky and a monsoon poured down on us.

How was I going to drive home? I couldn’t lift my foot to push the gas let alone the clutch. My body was completely spent. I had never felt such pain in my entire life.

Thanks to an amazing boss I was actually able to take a week of vacation to recover. Read that again. A WEEK to recover. The morning after that hike I had to basically crawl to the bathroom. I literally could not walk. Now, I don’t say any of this to scare people from the hike. Quite the contrary,  you should go. I am just giving you a side that many will not tell you. It’s a blasted HARD hike. One site, a few years ago, had it listed as a black diamond like they do with ski slopes. I don’t know if that is the ‘technical’ rating for it, but I do know you can count on one mile an hour mostly due to the trek uphill on the way out.

Oh yeah, and the hike is only about 4.3 miles one way. In total between the 8.6 and 10 ,or more, if you decide to go up to Martha’s Pretty Point or explore around the area near the falls.

Prior to my first hike there I had been walking upwards of 8 miles on my nice little paved green-way near my house. I walked that much almost daily. The hikes I had done up to that point were easy, so easy they really shouldn’t even be counted as hikes.

And I thought I was so tough before hitting the trail.

I was certain that all my non-strenuous green-way walking had prepared me for a so-called hard hike.

Humble pie tastes like crap.

As you are starting down the trail you will see a guard shack that usually has somebody there. They are there for one reason; to let you know what you are getting in to. The first time I hiked there that shack was not there. All the warnings I had were a couple of signs that I totally ignored because young gun nephew said I wouldn’t have any problems.

If there is a sign STOP AND READ IT!!

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This was the sign about ten years ago. It has been updated to the one below. This was taken just a few months ago. READ IT!

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Did I read it?

Yes.

Did it sink in?

No.

The nephew just kept saying ‘You’ll be fine. Trust me.’

Second: The Illusion of Ease

The trail starts off level and deceivingly easy. After a short walk, I believe around .2 mile in, you will see a fork where you can go off to the right and take the Upland Trail to Martha’s Pretty Point. The hike has some small hills and is ok and is nothing too strenuous or spectacular. You do a pretty long walk on a gravel covered access road. It is the easier way to get to the overlook and campsites up there. You can also continue on the Upland trail and it will loop back down where it meets back up with the main trail to Virgin. If you decide to take this trail you will bypass the cable crossing that is just prior to the cable crossing campsites.

Continuing on the main trail you will continue on the narrow trail with relative ease. When you start to get into, what I believe is a grove of rhododendrons, the trail can be muddy and you will start to see more roots and rocks. Still, nothing difficult at this point.

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The first named waterfall you come to is Big Branch Falls. If you ever get to this falls and it is not flowing you will know that, more than likely, Big Laurel will be not much but a trickle. But, if it IS flowing you will be in for a good day. The descent down to the Big Branch is also the first inkling of what the terrain is going to be like.

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I knew on this day that Virgin was going to be rockin’ and rollin’.

Now you will start to go down some switchbacks and you will hear more water. You will end up at the cable crossing.

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Just past the cable crossing on the creek there are three campsites. If you are wanting to get into camping this makes a great beginner camping area. It’s not too far in and there is usually a water source (except in the hotter months of summer). I have seen it bone dry before. So, if hiking in July or August make certain you have plenty of water going in.

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Cable Crossing Campsites

Not very far past the campsites is the trail that leads up to Martha’s Pretty Point Overlook. It’s about a half mile up to the overlook. It’s a hard half mile and the trail can be a bit confusing. Once up there you can opt to continue on the Upland Trail that I mentioned above. It will take you back to the beginning of the trail.

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Martha’s Pretty Point

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Martha’s Pretty Point in the winter.

In the video below we went up to the overlook from the cable crossing section and came out on the Upland Trail. And yes, I did walk through their campsite. At the 1:40 mark I point up and say ‘Do not go up’. There is a section that looks like the trail but isn’t. If you go up it’s very steep and you will be directly under the cliff. That is not the part where the ladder is, so don’t waste your time going up. Nothing to see.

Not long after you pass the sign directing you towards Martha’s Pretty Point the terrain changes. You will begin descending ever so slightly and you will see some absolutely beautiful landscapes with waterfall after waterfall (provided it isn’t the middle of summer in a drought). You will have to watch your footing more from now on out. There will be the occasional reprieve from rocks and roots, but those won’t last that long. You may not notice that you are continuing to go down. You will be too busy just taking the beauty in that you won’t notice. That is until you get to the top of Big Laurel Falls.

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Virgin falls in the fall

After awhile you will soon be standing just above Big Laurel Falls. At this point you will go down to the base of Big Laurel on a very steep slope that has a wire cable to help you down.

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Rock Climbing Big Laurel Falls

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As you can see, there is ample camping for both tents and hammocks.

You can go inside the cave behind the falls. However, know that the ceiling does fall from time to time. Also, there is NO CAMPING and NO FIRES inside the cave. This is common sense, but I have been on two occasions where I have seen tents and a fire going. The fire could potentially cause the ceiling to cave in and who would want to set up a tent inside where this is a possibility?

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Looking out from inside the cave

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Big Laurel Falls is about the half way point. I always stop here for a snack and to rest up. The cave is fun to explore. It’s very sandy inside and the rocks are extremely slick.

When you finish up with your break at Big Laurel you will continue on down the trail. It’s pretty uneventful and it’s a nice hike. The trail is easy to follow. You will, however, feel like you have gone more than a couple of miles.  After awhile you will come to a junction. You can go left which is the shorter way down to the falls or go to the right towards Sheep Cave. It’s a little bit longer going towards the right, but much less steep. To the left it is extremely steep. I recommend going right to go to Virgin and coming up the other way, shorter way. Just my preference though.

Eventually, either way you go, you will come up to some of the campsites. I have camped here before. It’s probably the best sleep I have ever had while camping due to the sound of the falls. It’s very loud and soothing.

When you get to the falls drop your pack. Sit down and have a good lunch. After you rest up you can go up the trail directly up from the VF sign and go to the left. The trail will take you up and around to a cave and to where the campsites used to be on top of the falls. They no longer allow camping up there, but it’s still neat to get to the top of the falls and the area is very pretty.

Now for the fun. The way out. All I can say is take your time and rest in knowing that you will have completed one heck of a hard hike (if you make it out) lol.  Oh, wanted to also mention that on the way in you may think to yourself  ‘I’ll do the overlook up to Martha’s Pretty Point on the way out’. Ummmm, probably not. I mean you ‘might’, but I can almost guarantee by the time you get to the sign to go up there you will not even have the urge to go. SO, if you are bound and determined to go to the overlook AND VF in the same day, I strongly recommend you do it on the way in. When you first start the hike take the Upland Trail to the overlook and then continue the trail down to the main trail. It can be very confusing trying to find it though. You will go down a ladder and then the trail winds down and back and forth a bit. Like I said, can be sorta confusing.

If you want to camp you will need reservations. The area is managed by Fall Creek Falls. On the link below, be sure to scroll down the page to choose the sites there.

https://reserve.tnstateparks.com/fall-creek-falls/campsites

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So, the takeaways.

  1. Plan on ONE mile an hour. Not kidding. Give yourself time to do this. If you go after the time change make sure to plan for that and have a headlamp.
  2. Take plenty of water ( I don’t care if you NEVER DRINK WATER) take it and/or water filter.
  3. Snacks. YES, you WILL get hungry.
  4. Shoes. Please wear appropriate shoes. You will be cussing some flip flops if you choose to go that route. And yes, I have seen that and the people were not happy.
  5. Don’t drag your small children on this. If they hate hiking this will make sure they will keep hating it. Wait until they are old enough to enjoy it.
  6. Take breaks…lots of them. No shame in it. Remember, my first trip there took 12 hours. Yours probably won’t.

And that’s it. Please feel free to reach out to me for any questions. Also, when in doubt just call the ranger’s office and talk to them about it. Just go prepared and you will be in awe of the beauty of this place and know why it is one of my favorite hikes in Tennessee.

Happy Hiking!

Lori

Savage Gulf: Stone Door/Ranger Falls/Alum Gap/Big Creek Rim Trails

Tennessee Hikes

This past weekend I decided on a sort of ‘training hike’ at Savage Gulf State Natural Area. I am planning on doing the whole Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail in May so I am in training mode. I did around ten miles starting at Stone Door with the intention of going to Ranger Falls, Up to Alum Gap campsites and then, if time permitted, was going to go to Greeter Falls and then return to Stone Door via the Big Creek Rim trail.

I have hiked all over Savage Gulf and this is one of the few sections I have left to hike. I had been to the base of Stone Door before…stopping just above the wooden stairs at the bottom. On this day I would continue on down those steps going all the way down to the gulf.

It was a beautiful hike. The temps were right above freezing when we finally hit the trail. When we got to Stone Door we found an icy mess of the stone steps that led down to the bottom.

My friend, Brenda, was able to walk down. No way was I going to chance messing up my knee again. I scooted all the way down on my booty. It was quite cold when I stood up, as you can imagine. However, I knew it would be warming up and it wasn’t all that uncomfortable.

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This is a rugged trail. There are tons of boulders and rocks. You have to watch your footing and you will not be moving fast on this section.

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The main trail is blazed in white and the Ranger Falls spur trail is blazed in blue. The trail is well marked.

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It is rocky going the whole way which makes for a very slow hike. We have had a lot of rain over the last few weeks. I mean A LOT of rain. The Cumberland River was at or just below flood stage. There were little wet weather waterfalls that had popped up all along the way and the normally dry creek bed that was part of the trail now had water flowing through it.

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Most of the hike at the base goes along the river. There was a small section that cut back up for a bit, but it headed back down.

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Turn off to the left and follow the trail. The view of Big Creek is beautiful. At least is was on this day. It became very apparent that there was more flooding than I had anticipated.

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As we walked up to the blazed tree we were so disappointed.

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There was absolutely no way we could get across.

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Even though it was a HUGE disappointment, especially after the hike in and what would be a brutal hike out, the day and the area had been so pretty we were just thankful to be out and about. We knew we would be coming back.  This spot was so nice we decided to eat lunch and get off trail a little and explore. There was a little sandy beach area and plenty of rocks to sit on and be comfortable.

We finished up lunch and we really weren’t expecting the hike out to be any more picturesque than what we had already seen. We were wrong. A little ways back down the main trail we came upon a waterfall. Not Ranger falls, but what we guessed was a wet weather waterfall. I have not been in this section before, so I have no idea if this is normally there. It was beautiful.

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I don’t know if camping is allowed on this stretch, but if I could choose a spot it would be right down on the little beach area where this was. There was a larger area with some sand.

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Could have stayed all day, but we had to get moving. We knew the hike up to the Alum Gap campsites was going to be hard. We just weren’t ready for how hard. Usually, here in Tennessee, there are a lot of switchbacks. However, not the case on the way back up. It was straight up and unrelenting. I am not sure what the grade of the trail is, but I know it was definitely doing a number on my ankles. They were killing me as was my back and shoulders.

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After what feels like a week you will come to some steps (sort of).

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Here’s a view looking back down

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This is how pathetic I am on hills. As we were climbing up we could hear some people coming up behind us. We got to the top and decided to just wait and catch our breath. Along comes a group of older people. I mean late sixties. There was one young guy pulling up the rear and sort of helping an older gentleman. I think he may have been his grandfather. The kid looked to be maybe 19 or 20. They get to the top with us and we chat for a minute and go on while they stay back and rest. It wasn’t ten minutes before every.single.one of them passed us…or, should I say, me. Brenda is only slow because of me. I accepted a long time ago that pretty much if you are breathing you will be faster than I am. Those older folks smoked us. They were up and gone in no time. Never saw them again. And they were going where we were….back to Stone Door.

This massive climb took us right around an hour to do. As hard as I try, I just cannot do hills fast.

There were still some surprises in store as we got closer to the top top lol.

There was another waterfall.

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I was too exhausted and hyperventilating from the climb, that I did not have the energy to try and do a proper waterfall picture. So this will have to do.

Finally, after a week on that hill,  we were at the junction.

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The plan to go to Greeter was now a distant memory. That would add another 2.8 miles and we just didn’t have the energy or the daylight left to do it. I have been to Greeter many times. It it will have to wait for the next time.

So on towards Alum Gap Campsites we went. I wanted to show Brenda the sites because I plan on a camping trip sometime this year with her and Shelia.

As we got to the kiosk there was a sign I had never seen before:

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I have yet to ever see a bear in Savage Gulf, but I do know they are there.  Not worried one bit. I solo camped in the area last year with only one small group of other people at a distant site, and didn’t have any problems. I know it could happen, but I’m certainly not letting that stop me from hiking or camping.

There were several workers there fixing up all the sites and dropping dead trees. By spring the camping areas are going to be in great shape.

I already spotted the site I want to use next time. Site #8.

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After checking all the sites out we had a decision to make. We could take the shorter, Laurel Trail  (2.9 miles)back to to Stone door or the longer Big Creek Rim Trail (3.2 miles). The difference is the Laurel trail is pretty much all in the woods while the BCR trail goes in and out of the woods with several overlook views. We opted to do the Rim trail.

We were so tired, but the views were worth it.

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There weren’t any colors on the trees and very little green, but I still thought it was pretty.

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And to think we had been right down in the middle of that just a few hours before.

We made it back to Stone door and popped out right near the overlooks on that side again. Now for the mile or so hike back to my car. We were exhausted, but felt accomplished.

Here is my Alltrails recording of the trip.

As per our usual stop when we hike in Savage Gulf , our post hike meal would be Jim Oliver’s Smokehouse in Monteagle, TN. Oh.My.Word. I always describe it as Cracker Barrel’s redneck cousin. They have the best food and very unique general store. Check it out if you are ever out that way.

Happy Hiking!