Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Trail Review: Lower Overnight Loop at Fall Creek Falls

Cane Creek Cascades at Fall Creek Falls
Trail: Lower Overnight Loop at Fall Creek Falls
Location: Fall Creek Falls State Park; Pikeville, TN
Trail Length: 12.8 Miles
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous
Solitude: Crowded near front country, isolated in backcountry

Fall Creek Falls at FCF State Park
256-foot Fall Creek Falls
Fall Creek Falls is an excellent and well-managed park. It is one of Tennessee's most popular state parks for good reason. As the name suggests, it offers beautiful waterfall views in addition to swimming holes, scenic overlooks, numerous campgrounds, and countless other forms of outdoor recreation. Having said that, I found out this past weekend that backpacking is probably not the best offering in the park. Too much of the trails wander in and out of the front country through flat wooded areas with little isolation or distinction. Most of the best features are the main front country attractions filled with tourists and car campers. Admittedly, those attractions are gorgeous, and the trail offers some really cool suspension bridges over mountain creeks and rushing cascades. If you’re simply looking for a great workout and the opportunity to sleep under the stars, away from car campers, this trail will do just fine. If you’re looking for more of a wilderness experience, I suggest considering many of the other great hikes in the Cumberland Plateau region (see my last review of Virgin Falls for one great example.) With that caveat, here’s a trail overview and some more photos from the hike.

Swimmers at Cane Creek Cascades, Fall Creek Falls
Another shot of Cane Creek Cascades and the summer crowd enjoying the swimming.

We opted to take this trail clockwise, making it roughly a six-mile hike to sleep at Campsite #2. Those who opt for a counter-clockwise route can take a shorter 3-mile trek to hit Campsite #1, the better site in my opinion (more about that later.) The lower overnight loop begins at a parking area just by the park’s entrance. This first section winds you about two miles in and out of the woods over park roads until you reach the Nature Center area. This is the most populated but most impressive area of the park as you pass by the Cane Creek Cascades. During our hike, the Cascades were filled with visitors enjoying the natural swimming hole just below the falls. From there you will cross a large suspension bridge on your way to the park’s namesake. The mile or so up to the falls was also very populated. A short spur trail leads you to an overlook with great views of the 256-foot Fall Creek Falls and also offers a trail that can take you to the base of the falls. We opted to forego the side trail to the base and head back into the woods. From here the trail meanders back through relative flat land until you hit another spur trail to view Piney Creek Falls. After this spur trail, you will find another impressive suspension bridge over Piney Creek that is a nice area, though not secluded. From here, it’s back to the woods, and after a half-mile or so and yet another road crossing, you are finally in the backcountry.

Pretty hiker takes a rest at Fall Creek Falls Piney Creek
My companions, Dyna and Kendra, taking a respite by Piney Creek
Fall Creek Falls suspension bridge at Cane Creek
Ebony, Dyna, & the author cross Cane Creek
Within two miles of the last road crossing, you’ll find Campsite #2. The site is set on a highland clearing with tall grasses, open sun, and minimal shade. Perhaps this site would be great in the winter, but the tall grasses and lack of shade made for a very buggy and muggy site during our hot June outing. The only water source is in the form of a large well pump, which the rangers told us still needed treatment or filtering. For those on solo treks, be warned. This heavy pump takes two hands to operate, so be prepared with a flat container you can set underneath the spout. Trying to fill a bladder by yourself would prove to be quite a challenge.

Upon leaving Campsite #2, you enter the best but most strenuous part of the hike. Supposedly, a spur trail leading to a rock house and waterfall are just past the campsite. Neither my girlfriend nor I saw any signage or indication though we did hear the rush of the falls from the trail. Pretty soon, you will descend into the Cane Creek gorge with some serious elevation change. This part of the trail was filled with rhododendron, large boulders, mountain laurel, and the deep mountain feel I associate with the Cumberland Plateau. Once in the gorge valley, you’ll find another suspension bridge over Cane Creek. Just past the bridge is a social trail parallel to the creek with ample opportunities for swimming and playing in a wild mountain stream. We took full advantage of this secluded, backcountry swimming hole’s privacy for a nice genital-shrinking dip in the cold water. This respite helped energize us for the roughly 700-foot climb back out of the gorge. This section is tough but beautiful, much like the descent.

Fall Creek Falls, Cane Creek swimming hole
A great swimming spot in the Cane Creek gorge. (Notice the suspension bridge in the background)
Once back on higher ground, the trek resumes its winding way through flat woods. Within a mile or so, you will find Campsite #1 which offers much more shade and a better woods experience than #2. However, the closest water source during our visit was nearly dry, so be sure to check with rangers to find out conditions. After the campsite, the trail continues a fairly flat, easy three-mile trek back to the front country and parking lot.

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