Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Trail Review: Stone Door Loop; Savage Gulf, TN

misty mountain overlook, stone door hiking trail review

Trail: Stone Door Loop (Stone Door to Big Creek Gulf to Big Creek Rim Trails)
Location: Savage Gulf State Recreation Area; Stone Door Ranger Station, Beersheba Springs, TN
Trail Length: 9.8 miles, 13.4 miles if adding side trails to Ranger Falls and Greeter Falls (both are well worth the effort)
Difficulty: Moderate 
Solitude: Moderate to good (depending on time of year)

click map for larger image
This trail packs a lot of beautiful and diverse scenery into a relatively small loop. With ancient rock formations, multiple flowing waterfalls, swimming holes, and several gorgeous misty-mountain overlooks , this hike offers some full on nature porn. The beauty-to-effort ratio is very much in the hiker’s favor. Only one section of this trail is particularly strenuous, and some of the prettiest parts of this hike are along the very flat and easy to traverse rim of the Big Creek Gulf. This is probably one of the better trails in all of the Cumberland Plateau region of Tennessee and appears very well maintained and managed, too. Stone Door definitely belongs on any hiker’s list who is anywhere close to this region; here’s why… 

misty mountains savage gulf tn
Misty mountain sunrise at Laurel Gulf Overlook
Once you pull into the Stone Door Ranger Station, you might want to leave your pack in the car and take the very quick little loop hike to Laurel Falls as you stop by the trail registry and pick up a map. It is only .3 miles. Frankly, the falls are not overly impressive, but the “hike” is less than 5 minutes, so why not? It’s a good warm up. After that, the real hike begins on the Stone Door Trail, though the first .2 miles are paved. The pavement ends at the beautiful Laurel Gulf Overlook, which offers impressive views (see my photo above.) From there you will begin to hit the actual dirt trail and at only .9 miles you will reach the trail’s namesake, the great Stone Door formation. This area also offers another great overlook taking in the Big Creek Gulf into which you’ll be descending. That descent begins right through Stone Door, a 10 foot wide by 100 foot deep crack through rock and stone. Apparently, Native Americans used the passageway, with its many stone steps, as an entryway to hunting grounds. At this point, you will make your way down to the Big Creek Gulf, having already packed some great views into only 1 mile.

Stone Door portal, tn
Stone Door
The Big Creek Gulf Trail quickly begins to feel like a true forest. The crowds thin out at this point, too. Watch for snakes in warm weather (as with any trail.) The ranger warned me that rattlesnakes and copperheads were frequently spotted. Sure enough, I saw a substantial snake lying right in the middle of the trail within a mile. I know it was not a rattlesnake, but I cannot say for certain it was not a copperhead. It paid me no mind as I gathered the courage (I’m a bit snake phobic) to take an absurdly wide berth around it. From that point forward, my eyes were glued to the trail below, but I saw no other snakes during the remaining 11 or 12 miles. The hike to the gulf is beautiful, full of the rhododendron, laurel, and very rocky terrain that define these mountains. Once you reach the bottom, much of your hike will parallel a creek bed, though most sections were completely dry during my visit. 

Ranger Falls by Stone Door TN
Ranger Falls
At 2.9 miles, you will reach the side trail to Ranger falls. This trail is rocky and crosses two creek beds in its .4 miles. Both were dry during my hike. Ranger Falls is a beautiful little fall with a “sink” basin where the water disappears underground. The sink makes a perfect swimming hole, of which my dog took full advantage. Once you leave Ranger Falls and head back to the Big Creek Gulf Trail, you will begin your ascent back out of the gulf. This is the only truly strenuous aspect of the trail. Within a mile or less, you will reach a section of the Big Gulf Creek with water running (at least I did on my visit.) If you’re planning to camp at Alum Gap, this is a good spot to consider filtering and restocking your water. There is a source near the campsite, but it was dry during my hike.

Savage Gulf campfire
Alum Gap campsite
At 4.9 miles (minus the Ranger Falls side trip), you will be out of the gulf and will hit both the Greeter Falls Trail and the Alum Gap campsite only 160 feet ahead. I chose to go set up camp and take a rest at Alum Gap, which sits atop a bluff, offers several campsites, and even offers the opportunity to camp right on an overlook (though those spots were taken during my trip.) After setting up camp, I headed to Greeter Falls, where I also hit a water source within a mile (from a creek just below a foot bridge.) This is another option for campers if you didn’t grab water in the gulf below. This trail also offers a nice overlook section within a half mle of so before heading to the falls.

Upper Greeter Falls tennessee mountains
Upper Greeter Falls
After the foot bridge, you will hit a small loop that takes you to upper Greeter Falls, lower Greeter Falls, and the smaller Boardtree Falls. I chose to go the right, up a set of maintained steps (they’re short) and work the loop counterclockwise. If you’re feeling exhausted, you might consider just going to Greeter Falls (to the right) and returning back the same way. Continuing the loop leads to some rockier, rugged, and somewhat more strenuous terrain. I was only able to see upper Greeter Falls because the lower falls require that you descend a steel spiral staircase the park has installed. No manner of persuasion could entice my dog onto the contraption. The upper falls, however, were beautiful and offered a perfect wading pool during my hike (see pics). From there we hit the slow-trickling Boardtree Falls, and then hiked back to Alum Gap, ready for a quick dinner and sleep.

From Alum Gap, you will begin a hike with ridiculously beautiful payoffs for almost no effort. This is the Big Creek Rim Trail. It is flat, easy, and has three overlooks, which were stunning as I hit them right at sunrise (I left camp before light to catch this opportunity.) The mist swirling through the gulfs below made it feel as if I were standing amidst clouds. The trail winds 3.2 miles along this rim until you reach the Stone Door trail again for your last .9 miles. This also gives you another opportunity to see Stone Door, its overlook, and the Laurel Gulf Overlook at different time of day. Hopefully my photographs can do justice to this trail; it is highly recommended and one the crown jewels of the Cumberland Plateau region.

Boardtree Falls in Savage Gulf TN
Boardtree Falls

mountain mist at Big Creek Overlook TN
Big Creek Overlook
waterfall swimming hole savage gulf tn
"Sink" swimming hole at Ranger Falls
Mountain waterfall
Upper Greeter Falls makes an excellent wading pool.

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