Thursday, October 23, 2014

Trail Review: Collins Gulf Loop at Savage Gulf

Skinny Falls with fall leaves, Savage Gulf, TN
Skinny Falls
Trail: Collins Gulf Loop
Location: Savage Gulf State Recreation Area; Tracy City, TN
Trail Length: 13 Miles
Difficulty: Moderate with Strenuous stretches
Solitude: Moderate with crowded weekends during better weather

Map of Collins Gulf Loop at Savage Gulf
Click map for larger image.
After each visit, my gratitude for Savage Gulf State Natural Area grows, especially given the drive from my Nashville home is only two hours. With its sandstone overlooks, abundant waterfalls, underground springs, river sinks, house-sized boulders, and rock formations, Savage Gulf offers a quintessential southern mountain experience with many day hike, overnight, and multi-day trail options. The Collins Gulf loop is an excellent introduction to Savage Gulf and makes for a somewhat strenuous but wholly rewarding overnight trip. The hike is book-ended by the most difficult, but perhaps most beautiful, sections of the trail no matter which direction you choose to take. I opted to take the loop counterclockwise, which made for a longer first day of hiking and a shorter, more relaxed hike out the second day. Here are some of the specifics of the hike as well as some more photographs.

From the Collins West parking lot, you hike in only 0.3 miles before reaching the Collins West Campsite and the Collins Gulf Overlook. (NOTE: This campsite could be used for those who prefer a luxurious “backpacking” experience by setting up camp here and simply hiking the surrounding areas with a day pack. This would have most of the appeal of car-camping luxury with more of a backcountry experience.) After enjoying the view from Collins Gulf Overlook’s short spur trail, you will descend from the campsite area into the rocky terrain of the main Collins Gulf Trail. At about 0.5 miles you will reach a trail split. You should continue straight (or right) towards Collins East Campsite (NOTE: for those impatient to see beautiful features, you can opt to briefly head left for a ¼ mile out and back sneak peak of Suter Falls). From this split, you will begin descending quickly and strenuously into the gulf with huge boulders completely surrounding from all sides including underfoot. After this gorgeously rugged section, you will reach Collins East Campsite having traveled approximately 2 miles. The hardest section of this first day is now already behind you.

View from Collins Gulf Overlook at Savage Gulf State Natural Area in TN
The view from Collins Gulf Overlook. 
Shortly after Collins East, you will cross a long suspension bridge over the Collins River. PAY ATTENTION HERE. The trail continues IMMEDIATELY to your right at 90 degrees at the end of the bridge. This is easy to miss because a social trail has been created heading straight from the bridge, which climbs up a ridge and dead-ends at a steep rock face. From here, you will begin to gradually gain elevation along the eastern ridge of Collins Gulf. This section of the trail is more subdued both in terms of the hike and in terms of aesthetics. As you cross the ridge, you will pass the remnants of a moonshine still, apparently (I missed it, apparently) as well as four overlook points. LOOK FOR BLUE BLAZES on the trees to designate the overlook spur trails. On my trip, I hiked past a couple of the overlooks mistakenly; they can be easy to miss.

Suter Falls spilling in Savage Gulf
You can "cheat" and get a sneak peak of Suter Falls by backtracking a quarter mile early in the hike.
At approximately 6.5 miles, you will reach a trail split along a nice creek just above Skinny Falls. You will veer to the left (northwest) onto the Stagecoach Historic Trail. You are now only 2 miles from camp. After a quick switchback, you will come upon the very picturesque Skinny Falls that spills from the rock-walled creek you just passed. This area makes for a great resting spot with nice rocks to sit upon and beautiful scenery. This is also a good spot to filter water before camp. At 8.2 miles, you will come upon another trail split before reaching camp. Take the Connector Trail to your left (heading southeast), and you will quickly reach Sawmill Campsite.
Skinny Falls along Collins Gulf Loop in Savage Gulf, TN
Skinny Falls

The Sawmill Campsite sits in a bit of a valley and offers 9 campsites and a latrine (all backcountry campsites in Savage Gulf seem to have a blue latrine.) After a good night's sleep, you will be ready to see some of the trails best features in quick succession on day 2 of your hike.

After leaving camp, you will rejoin the Collins Gulf Trail on its western edge of the gulf. Within a half mile of leaving camp (7 miles total), you will cross the Collins River bed over enormous rocks and boulders. During my visit, this section was dry, though it might be wet after heavy rainfalls. Shortly after this crossing, you will reach a spur trail to Schwoon Springs. This is a beautiful feature with a natural spring emanating from a cave mouth, including a partially exposed, half-underground waterfall. The cave behind the falls can be explored as well, for those so inclined.

Schwoon Springs partially underground falls
Schwoon Springs and a partially underground waterfall
At roughly a mile after Schwoon Springs (11.2 miles total), you will reach Fall Creek Sink. This is another gorgeous area that offers small cascades along the Collins River before the slowing rapids disappear underground into the namesake sink. This river clearing offers an excellent, peaceful, shady spot for a snack or picnic to fuel up for the remaining 2.8 miles.

Fall Creek Sink
In another 0.3 miles from Fall Creek Sink (11.5 miles total), you will come to a short spur trail offering views of the wide and wild 20-foot Horsepound Falls. On my trip, I came across a family with multiple hammocks strung above the falls, as this area also makes for a nice respite spot.

After Horsepound Falls, you will begin winding south back to the most rugged areas of this gulf’s southern tip. Soon enough, you will reach a strenuous but visually rewarding climb up the bluff with numerous switchbacks. This difficult climb is eventually rewarded as you begin to hear the lovely Suter Falls just around the rocky top of the bluff.

Horsepound Falls along Collins Gulf Trail in Savage Gulf, TN
Horsepound Falls
At 12.6 miles, you will hit Suter Falls, a lush area with a small natural wading pool, vibrant green mosses, and boulders strewn throughout. A small suspension bridge takes you over the stream. Take a left after the bridge and enjoy this especially beautiful ¼ mile section as the mountain stream from Suter Falls cascades below you. From here, you will rejoin the split from the day before. Head right, back towards Collins West Campsite and, from there, the parking lot. You have just completed one of the better overnight trips in this region.

Suter Falls spills into wading pools and moss covered rocks
Suter Falls with its natural wading pools and mossy rocks.

Where to park (Google Maps)
Park Website
Trail Map
Savage Gulf Phone Numbers: Savage Gulf Ranger Station- 931.779.3532; Stone Door Ranger Station - 931.692.3887


If you've enjoyed any of the content you've found here, please join me on my social media platforms. 
This helps support the site. THANKS!



    My god I could not thank you enough for explaining every detail, turn, and caution of this trail. This is by far the best guide to this trail out there. No where else have I been able to find a map for this trail nor a turn by turn take on the best route.
    Kudos and happy hiking, friend!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I too want to thank you for great directions/details! Heading there next week to hike it alone (in one day, no overnight), and this helps to take some of the worry out of doing that.

  4. Im thinking about doing this trip Sat and coming back Sunday. Did you have to register for the sawmill campsite?