Thursday, June 19, 2014

Trail Overview - Polly Branch Falls Area in Scott's Gulf, TN

Waterfall in Scott's Gulf, TN near Virgin Falls State Natural Area
An unnamed fall very close to Upper Polly Branch Falls campsite.
Many, many people visit the excellent Virgin Falls Trail for good reason. It's a beautiful hike and its namesake is one of the prettiest waterfalls in the state. You might have noticed the Polly Branch Falls trailhead in the same area, and it was probably much less crowded. I decided to check out this less popular area earlier this week. I call this a trail “overview,” rather than a trail review. This is because the well-designed loop I had planned to take (from a guidebook) turned out to be full of mishaps, overgrown footpaths, and entirely too much backtracking and improvising.  I wouldn't call the zig-zag makeshift hike that actually took place a "loop" or even an out and back. So, you should learn from my (avoidable) mistakes and hit the worthwhile sections of this area at the proper time of year. With the map I've attached you could easily make a 4-5 mile loop of your own, as I've clearly designated the "better" areas I hiked.  I actually ended up having a great trek and enjoyed camping beside a gentle river section near beautiful waterfalls, enormous rock boulders, and the lush density of a genuine forest all around. But I also wasted several miles practically bushwacking my through hot, brushy, overgrown fields. In short, this area in Scott’s Gulf, TN, is DEFINTELY worth exploring, just do your homework (unlike this author) before heading out. More on that…

Polly Branch Falls Hiking Map Bridgestone Firestone WIlderness

I can only speak to the sections of this area I hiked, but I’ll update this overview when I return to the area for more exploring. So long as you’re taking trails to these destinations, you’re hanging out in nice wooded areas full of boulders, waterfalls, streams, and a “true” forest feeling. I look forward to returning here:
  • POLLY BRANCH FALLS TRAIL - This trail winds mostly through dense, lush forest. Very pretty
  • UPPER POLLY BRANCH FALLS - Very nice waterfall and beautiful area to hang out. Hike takes you to top of fall and this upper section of the stream is also a nice place to traverse and wade when waters are at a safe level. Always be careful by the falls, though!!!!
  • UPPER POLLY BRANCH FALLS CAMPGROUND - This campsite sits along a still section of the Caney Fork River. Very peaceful. Moving water is within a few hundred yards of the campsite offering ample opportunity to filter and restock water. Be prepared for the potential of humidity and mosquitos as you are directly by the river.
  • JENNY BRANCH FALLS - I give this a lukewarm endorsement. This is a short spur trail, but during my visit it was pretty overgrown and gets pretty rough and rocky. I wouldn’t quite call it “bouldering” to get there, but it’s a bit more effort than walking. The falls were only at a trickle during my visit as you see in the photo. It’s very, short, though, if you’re just looking to bag another waterfall.

Maybe not worth the effort...
  • SCREWS CLIFF OVERLOOK - Skip this feature during summer and late spring unless you don’t mind doing a little extra navigating and suffering through some less than pleasant terrain. Or, go for it if you're just looking to bag an overlook (which has a limited vantage range when foliage is full)
  • UPPER ELEVATION, NORTHEASTERN SECTION OF CHESTNUT MOUNTAIN RANCH TRAIL (at least in the summer/spring.) - Hot, brushy, and difficult to discern due to high grasses and brush overgrowth.
I was supposed to be trekking the Screws Cliff Loop as outlined and designed in the excellent 50 Hikes of the Cumberland Plateau. Had I bothered to read the entire trail description, I would have noticed that the book’s author, Johnny Molloy, suggested that the higher elevations of the loop are “brushy and hot in summer, so avoid the trail then.” While, technically, I was out there a week before the official first day of summer, it was a 92 degree day and the section outlined was definitely “brushy” with knee high grasses full of ticks, thorns, and misery masking the barely discernable trail below. I had to refer to my compass and the author’s trail description just to navigate to the only reason to traverse this upper section, namely Scotts Overlook. As it turns out, the overlook was nice but the vantage was limited by the summer foliage. So, again, skip this during hot months unless you’re just looking to bag an overlook and love pulling dozens of ticks from your shins (as I literally did after my trek.) I hope you enjoy the photos below from the hike.

Dog in creek
My dog, Ebony, enjoys cooling off in Polly Branch Creek 
Backpacking tent by Caney Fork River Big Agnes Scout
My campsite at night by the Caney Fork River with my glowing new tent (Big Agnes Scout Plus UL 2 - LOVE IT!) 
Caney Fork River morning mist.
Mist on the Caney Fork River at sunrise. Just by campsite (good place to restock & filter water if camping.)
Tennessee waterfall, Upper Polly Branch Falls
Upper Polly Branch Falls. This is a GREAT area to plan a lunch or respite.
Jenny Branch Falls Bridgestone Firestone wilderness TN waterfall
The barely trickling Jenny Branch Falls. Short but rugged and overgrown side trail to get here.

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  1. I'm diggin the new site. You done any caving here in TN? There are much less bugs underground than there are above ground. There are more than 9k caves in the state. Hit me up if you ever want to explore any of them. We can start with the one behind my house if you want

    1. Hey Buck! Thanks for stopping by. I must admit, I'm a bit claustrophobic and have never done any caving. Last time I was at Virgin Falls however, I saw some folks repel from the cave mouth at the top of the fall to an exit point beneath the falls. (At least that appeared to be what they were doing…) That looked pretty amazing. I think I'm more of an above ground explorer, though! I'm sure I'm missing some amazing stuff, but hopefully folks like you can photograph and document what folks like me are too scared to explore.

  2. Bah... most of the caves I explore are plenty big enough for claustrophobes (including the one behind our house). I've heard plenty of people give that excuse, but then change their tune once they get into a cave. Caving goes hand in hand with hiking. You oughtta try it sometime. There are more than a few caves near some of these trails you are reviewing that you can just walk right into without having to get on hands and knees

  3. Fair enough. A walking cave I could do. Crawling in the dark or squeezing through tight passes in the depths of a cave just isn't for me. I can totally see the appeal to those more inclined, though. I'm sure it is otherworldly, a different form of beauty than we usually get to see, and, yes, the lack of bugs would be welcome.

  4. any idea who we would call to see if there is any water at this time of year? Thanks!

  5. any idea who we would call to see if there is any water at this time of year? Thanks!