*All the photos in this post were taken at different times/seasons over several years by me.*
Wow! So much that can be said.
First: The TRUTH
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!!
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!
Did I read it?
Did it sink in?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Martha’s Pretty Point
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.
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.
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?
Looking out from inside the cave
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.
So, the takeaways.
- 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.
- Take plenty of water ( I don’t care if you NEVER DRINK WATER) take it and/or water filter.
- Snacks. YES, you WILL get hungry.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.