Though my goal had been to get to the Smoky Mountains, I never made it… but had great fun exploring the Cumberland Plateau instead. Covering much of central Tennessee, this plateau is nearly 1,000 feet above the height of the Cumberland River (to the southeast), and contains an incredible diversity of plant and animal species. It has been carved over millenia by many creeks, and the geology of the area is apparent at every turn.
I decided to take a short backpacking trip (one night… though now I’m convinced to go back for more), and decided on the Collins Gulf sector of the Savage Gulf State Natural Area, which covers nearly 16,000 acres on the western edge of the Plateau. On a longer trip, I could have traversed the area, which is cut through by several rivers and creeks, giving it the aerial appearance of “a giant crowfoot.” If you are handy at reading a topographic map, you’ll find this one quite impressive.
Despite the topography, I figured that a twelve-mile hike in one day was do-able, if potentially exhausting. The volunteer at the ranger station had told us that in the drought and late fall conditions, there was “no water” on the trail, so we packed in all we would need. It turned out that there was enough water to filter in several places, so I will do my research better next time.
View from the top of the plateau, with shortleaf pine in the foreground, and hardwoods blanketing the hillsides
Twelve miles should have been do-able… if several sections of the trail hadn’t looked like this! On several signs and in the park brochures, we were repeatedly admonished, “No hiking after dark.” Foolishly, I didn’t think much of it until we started encountering sections these rickety boulders!
Blazes marked the trail to keep us on track, here winding between trees and rocks in the upland
The trail traverses the edge of this cliff, which would have included “the spectacular triple waterfall of Rocky Mountain Creek” in a wetter year.
The author, on a trail switchback along rock wall terraces, built by early settlers to provide areas flat enough for grazing livestock!
The loop trail we took crossed the “Gulf” (a local term for ravine or hollow) twice, on suspension bridges.
We took a rest where the trail encountered Fall Creek, the waterfall a trickle of its springtime glory, layers of geology exposed to our autumn view
Though the sun still shone, it got harder and harder to see our way in the evening, under the shadows of cliffs and trees. We crossed our last boulder field after the sun had set, but just before all of the light was gone. The last mile or so, though, we hiked in the dark, returning to camp to make a well-deserved supper by our headlamps!