Thursday, May 29, 2014

Trail Review: Virgin Falls Trail, Tennessee

Virgin Falls State Natural Area, Big Laurel Falls
Big Laurel Falls at Virgin Falls State Natural Area
Trail: Virgin Falls Trail
Location: Virgin Falls State Natural Area; Sparta, TN
Trail Length: 9 Miles (plus 1 mile for scenic overlook)
Difficulty: Strenuous
Solitude: Moderate

Tennessee's Virgin Falls
110-foot Virgin Falls
In case you're hurriedly perusing the web for a great overnight backpacking trip in Tennessee, let me cut to the chase. It doesn't get much better than this trail; hike it. Located on the Cumberland Plateau, Virgin Falls State Natural Area provides a beautiful and diverse survey of some of the most spectacular features of the region: scenic overview bluffs, cottage-sized boulders, dense second-growth hardwood forests, natural caves (the largest are currently closed), cold water creeks, and, of course, waterfalls. This trail has an elevation change of almost 900 feet and can be somewhat strenuous, especially on the hike out. The trek is a 4.5 mile out and back with a half-mile spur trail that takes you to Martha's Pretty Point, a tall bluff with a scenic overview of the surrounding foothills. The crown jewel of the hike is its namesake, a 110 waterfall at the very end of the trail, which originates from an underground stream and spills from a cave mouth atop a tall bluff. The view is awe-inspiring.
Virgin Falls State WIlderness Area - stairwell on the way to Martha's Pretty Point
Stairs on the way to Martha's Pretty Point

The trail begins on relatively flat ground as it winds its way slightly downward in elevation and comes to parallel the upper section of Big Branch Creek. At just over a mile, you will come to Big Branch Falls - a small but pretty creek spill over large rock slabs. At about 1.5 miles, you will cross the waters of Big Laurel Branch which can apparently be difficult after times of heavy rainfall - the park even has a wire cable across a higher section of the pass for stabilizing. Our dry spring visit involved no such difficulties and we easily skipped across ample boulders in the stream. (Campsites available at this area of the trail.) The trail twists downward and soon you come upon a spur trail taking you to the overlook of Martha's Pretty Point. The spur is only a half mile, but involves a couple of steep passages and even involves one built stairwell to ascend a particularly tricky section. The overlook is nice and worth checking out, but, the views are limited, at least during seasons of full foliage. (Campsites are available on the overlook section of trail.)

Martha's Pretty Point at Virgin Falls State Natural Area
My three hiking companions at Martha's Pretty Point
Once you return from the overlook spur, you begin a descent through some of the rockier sections as you parallel Big Laurel Creek. The scenery is beautiful and plenty of swimming hole worthy areas are available in the creek for treks during warmer months. At 2.8 miles, after some significant downward elevation changes, you will reach Big Laurel Falls, a welcome respite. The falls offer excellent scenery and the little forest "valley" makes for a perfect place to take a nice break or even set up camp. (Campsites are available at Big Laurel Falls.) 

Photo from under Big Laurel Falls at Virgin Falls
Photo taken from underneath the side of Big Laurel Falls
After Big Laurel Falls, the trail begins an even greater descent through enormous boulders, hardwoods, and lush forest. At 3.9 miles, you will hit the Virgin Falls Loop. We decided to go counterclockwise to the right so as to save Virgin Falls for last. This route takes you quickly to a side spur heading to Sheep Cave. We decided to forego this section as the cave is currently closed to protect its bat inhabitants from White Nose Sydrome. The loop continues until hikers find themselves trekking down to a clearing to find majestic Virgin Falls spilling forth. There is a campsite on a rim sitting about the midway point of the height of the falls, just adjacent to the cascades. I can hardly imagine a more romantic spot (in every sense of the word) to spend an evening under the stars with this gorgeous, roaring waterfall singing a calming lullaby. (Other campsites are also available at the Virgin Falls section of the trail, in addition to the “perfect” site just described.) Given my companion and I had two adventurous dogs with us, we decided this spot had too many potentially treacherous drops for our overly curious pups to explore in the middle of the night. Part of these drops include those found on yet another short spur trail that takes you to the top of the falls which I suggest checking out.

Virgin Falls in Tennesee's Cumberland Plateau region
Virgin Falls
Continuing on the loop past the falls, you will quickly find another spur trail taking you to the Caney Fork River campsites. This is where we decided to spend the night. The area was quiet and peaceful with the faint sound of the river’s whitewater in the distance. 

Caney Fork River by Virgin Falls campsite
Caney Fork River near our campsite.
Our hike out was just as satisfying and beautiful, though considerably more strenuous given the 860 feet of elevation gain (be prepared for a much slower hike out.) So, to restate what I said to begin this review, this trail is undoubtedly worth exploring. It is probably one of the best in the state and definitely in the Cumberland Plateau region. For more information about the Virgin Falls State Natural Area, including maps, click here.

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