In East Tennessee, the Great Smokey Mountains National Park gets all of the attention when it comes to hiking and backpacking. The Smokies certainly deserve their big reputation. They’re gorgeous mountains with abundant wildlife and a rich history.
However, most East Tennesseeans live nearly as close to the Cumblerland Plateau, a table of buckled rock and mountains that runs in a north-south line roughly parallel to the Smokies, from Chattanooga in the south up through Crossville to Jamestown in the north. Whereas trails in the Smokies are steep and every inch is covered in lush greenery, the Plateau has milder trails and gentler, rolling terrain. The uplifted rock creates more waterfalls and exposed geological features, from rock shelters to caves and natural bridges. Twin Arches, in Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, is the longest natural bridge east of the Mississippi.
Virgin Falls Pocket Wilderness is on the Plateau just south of Crossville. It’s owned by Bowater paper mills, which spared it from logging. When a paper company can’t bring itself to log an area, you know it’s spectacular. Honey Creek Pocket Wilderness near Big South Fork is similarly inspiring, and may be the most rewarding five mile roundtrip hike in Tennessee.
Jesse and I hitched up with the University of Tennessee Canoe and Hiking Club for a trip to Virgin Falls. Randy Bigbee organized and planned the trip. We hiked around this same time of year, in November of, I believe, 1997.
This first waterfall is about 30 feet tall and marks the smaller of the two caves on the trail. It’s a great beginner’s cave. The floor is level, and the ceiling is tall enough to stand upright. There are enough stalagtites and crystal formations to keep anyone’s interest.
The next few pictures show a magnificent rock shelter. There’s a small waterfall above it that drips into the shelter. The water then disappears underground. This picture is from inside the shelter looking out. That’s Jesse in the red pullover, chicken legs and all.
Click on any image for a larger picture.
The competition here was to see who could run all the way up this rock without sliding backwards. That’s Randy, who won the challenge.
This is Virgin Falls, a 110 foot waterfall by the Caney Fork River. There’s a deep, eroded basin at the bottom of the falls.
There’s a narrow, steep trail that takes you to the top of the falls. There you’ll find a wet cave that the water issues from. About 30 feet above that is the entrance to the dry cave. That’s me on the far left wearing a headlamp.
You go down about 20 feet as you enter the mouth of the cave. A short ways in there’s a crevice that’s three or four feet across. We jumped it, then came to another, wider crevice. We didn’t have a lot of caving experience, and no one had any ropes or safety equipment. Breaking an arm or leg inside a cave four miles from a road seemed like a bad idea, so Jesse and I turned around and left the cave.
Everyone made it out OK, and we had a great time in camp on the banks of the river. Virgin Falls is one of my top five backpacking trips, and I’d love to hike there again.