Along the trail on my Hike To Virgin Falls, I came upon a few signs leading me to Sheep Cave – a cave in the side of a mountain from which Little Laurel Creek re-emerges, flowing over a series of waterfalls before disappearing into a deep cavern underground.
It’s always interesting to see water flowing from a cave – also observed at Lost Creek State Natural Area, an adjoining park. Here, it moved over two waterfalls, the top of which was accessible via cautious maneuvers along a muddy hillside. See below…
At 40-feet tall, the water flows over a rock ledge and then vanishes underground into a large network of caves. The recessed overhang allows for easy access behind the falls, though rocks are damp and quite slippery – hikers should use caution!
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Located at the Virgin Falls State Natural Area in White County, Tennessee, Virgin Falls stands an impressive 110-feet tall. Emerging from a cave, water flows over the waterfalls and then disappears underground into another cave at the bottom of the sink.
Situated atop a mammoth cavern system, other areas along the trail – Big Laurel Creek, Big Laurel Falls and Little Laurel Creek at Sheep Cave – also vanish underground. If in the future I ever feel compelled to explore these caverns, there are over seven miles of mapped passages to hike (with flashlights & headlamps). Hmm…
Because there were several areas of interest along my 10 mile hike, this blog post will focus on Virgin Falls, specifically. In the days ahead, I’ll also include links referencing these other areas:
Along the hike, you’ll be tempted to go off trail sightseeing, as I did. Beauty is everywhere and many spots are accessible, but be cautious – danger awaits the unsuspecting in various forms (damp rocks with a thin layer of moss, slick mud under a blanket of dead leaves along a hillside, loose rocks underfoot). I fell once – moss!
The main trail is marked with a white blaze. Just follow the signs –
Cables are provided in four areas to assist hikers along the trail –
Despite the ground being saturated from recent rain, and with total cloud-cover overhead, this was nevertheless a wonderful, scenic hike! Due to the volume of water falling, though, there was significant wind & mist generated (listen to the video, below) – thus, making it virtually impossible to photograph directly in the front of the waterfall.
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After a short hike, I arrived at the scenic Jack Rock Falls. Standing 25-feet tall, I’d seen this waterfall on two previous occasions, each of which during relatively drier times. Following recent rains, it seemed that a return visit would be appropriate.
After taking photographs and enjoying this peaceful setting for a spell, I wondered…
…this waterfall is at a much higher elevation than Clear Creek, below. Might there be additional points of interest downstream worthy of exploration?
It seemed like a good bet, and so it began. I traversed along a steep hillside, weaved in and around trees and plants, and, when possible, climbed atop boulders hoping to glance what lay ahead. I could see some indication of an area where the rocks ended – a drop – but wouldn’t know with certainty until I arrived.
Moving downhill and around a cluster of moss covered rocks, I would soon see that which I’d hoped to find – another waterfall. Awesome! While I’m sure that others have enjoyed this spot, it was challenging to access without a trail, and I was grateful to have found such a beautiful place to enjoy.
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Located in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee near Gatlinburg, the trail to Rainbow Falls (80 feet) ascends the northern slopes of Mount LeConte (6,593 feet). Despite being rated as a difficult hike, the 2.75 mile trail to the falls is heavily trafficked with a constant incline over sometimes rugged terrain. With many switchbacks, it has an elevation gain of 1,653 feet and is one of six separate routes up the mountain. During warm weather, hikers should consider arriving early to secure a parking space, as the lot fills quickly.
If hiking during winter months, come prepared with proper clothing – the falls are above the frost line and temperatures can be quite cold. Here’s a photograph from my hike in March, 2019:
Fortunately, the weather was wonderful during my recent visit, as evident in the following scenes…
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Following a stop at Piney Falls – more on that in a subsequent post – I drove for a second time to visit the Lost Creek State Natural Area. This time, though seasonal foliage was absent, the volume of water flowing was bolstered by recent rainfall and provided wonderful scenery.
Though a recent Year In Review entry highlighted Cummins Falls as my favorite waterfall, Lost Creek Falls – when taken in totality – certainly ranks as a contender for such accolades. While the magnitude of beauty is less, there’s simply more to enjoy!
Notes of Interest
Water in the plunge pool at the base of the 50′ Lost Creek Falls disappears completely underground by draining into a “sink” (or bowl), though a small surface stream remains visible during very wet conditions. The water ends up inside nearby Lost Creek Cave, one of Tennessee’s largest caves, with five separate entrances and seven miles of mapped passages. It’s pitch black inside, requiring headlamps and secondary light systems for safety, and is closed during winter months for purposes of bat hibernation. Also, rumor has it that somewhere deep within the cave, there is another similarly-sized waterfall!
If you enjoy the peace and quiet of nature in a remote location, this area fits the bill. During my first and second visits, I encountered one individual, and then a couple, respectively, while hiking. GPS coordinates of the parking area are N35 50.442, W85 21.660. No restrooms, no gift shop.
There are several areas worthy of exploring, each of which will be detailed to some extent, as follows. Stairs are provided leading visitors from the parking area to the falls and cave, though other trails are more rocky. Also, rocks around the water are covered with moss and can be very slippery, so proper footwear is important – exercise discretion.
Ice can pose a hazard for visitors during winter months. Case in point, clusters of huge icicles were positioned on cliff walls to the sides of Lost Creek Falls, as well as above the 30-foot opening to Lost Creek Cave. While I was there, I saw and heard several come crashing down as temperatures warmed a bit. Heads up! Also, many rocks near the waterfalls become coated with thin ice from mist in the air, and can be very slippery!
Photographs & descriptions of each area in chronological order:
Lost Creek Falls
The main attraction, Lost Creek Falls can be heard as soon as you step out of your car. As is common with many waterfalls found on the Cumberland Plateau, rocks have been eroded in a horseshoe shape with recessed areas underneath ledges. This particular topography also includes a few small caves. Also, the plunge pool is quite shallow – great for kids and/or dogs.
Located slightly uphill along a short trail to the right of Lost Creek Falls is a smaller waterfall – actually, a set of two. It’s also easy to cross the stream from left to right, which allows hikers access to the top of the falls. However, if conditions are dry so too is this stream.
Lost Creek Cave
This giant cave is located only 300 feet from, and in clear sight of, Lost Creek Falls. Glancing inside, it doesn’t take much distance for light to diminish into darkness. It’s closed for the winter, and spelunkers are required to register for a permit.
Upper Lost Creek Falls
A short trail from the parking area to the top of Lost Creek Falls provides hikers with an opportunity for more interesting views. You’ll see the leading edge of the falls, a stream above which flows as a series of small cascades over rock ledges, and a small cave – largely obscured by boulders – at the top, wherein a honeycomb of eroded rock channels spring fed water from the hillside. Unlike my prior visit, an increased flow of water prevented me from crossing the stream, though I was able – moving deliberatively with extreme caution – to scale icy surfaces in reaching the cave opening.
Another area to enjoy is Rylander Cascades, a short 1/2 mile hike from Lost Creek Falls along a rocky trail. During my visit in late-August, this area was completely dry. So, plan on visiting sometime following rain. If you’re feeling ambitious, this trail also leads 4.5 miles to Virgin Falls – a strenuous hike.
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On the trail, turning left to follow orange markers is a detour down the mountain to the Cumberland Trail. Don’t go that way. If you follow the yellow trail markers, you’ll arrive at an overlook – with a view that was only okay. Staying on the main trail – follow the white markers – you’ll eventually reach the 30-foot falls. Use caution: a few trees had fallen across the trail.
Following several days of rain, I had the opportunity to return to the Fall Creek Falls State Park, located in Spencer, Tennessee, which features the state’s tallest waterfall at 256-feet. In contrast to rather dry conditions observed during an earlier visit, the water was substantial – thunderous!
Upon arrival at the Betty Dunn Nature Center (10821 Park Road, Spencer, TN), guests can enjoy two designated areas overlooking Cane Creek Gorge. Here are pictures of Cane Creek Falls (left, 85-feet), and another waterfall. One overlook provides easy access for handicapped visitors, also.
Note: current park renovations include the suspension bridge across Cane Creek – closed until further notice. As such, visitors will need to drive four miles to the parking area at Fall Creek Falls. From there, hiking trails are open – all the way back to Cane Creek. The following pictures highlight the bridge status in June 2019 and January 2020:
Cane Creek Cascades
Fall Creek Falls
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I visited Debord Falls at Frozen Head State Park, located in the Cumberland Mountains near Wartburg, Tennessee. It’s an easy 1/2 mile hike each way to see this 12-foot waterfall, which, depending on the season and recent weather events, can vary greatly as to volume of water. Fun for the entire family, dogs are also allowed but must be leashed.
I recently enjoyed a hike to Devil’s Racetrack along the Triple Falls Trail On Bruce Creek – a.k.a., Little Egypt – near Caryville, Tennessee. Only 1.8 miles out and back, it’s rated as moderately difficult with a rocky-trail and mud in areas. Despite spray-paint graffiti at the trailhead, there were many scenic views of different waterfalls along the trail, and an old wooden bridge upstream. After crossing Bruce Creek, the climb becomes quite steep with several switchbacks. It’s definitely worth the effort, though, as the panoramic views from the mountain top are wonderful!
I met a nice couple from Powell, Tennessee, on top of the mountain, and we hiked back down together. Along the way, I learned that Bruce Creek had been relocated to its present spot when the interstate was originally constructed.
Traveling on I-75 North from Knoxville, take exit 134 toward Cove Lake State Park. Turn left on Park Road. Turn left on Shelton Hollow Lane. Parking is on a small gravel area next to several large rocks, or along the road.
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I recently enjoyed a visit to Black Mountain, located in the Justin P. Wilson State Park near Crab Orchard, Tennessee. Rising 2827-feet above sea level, the area offers hikers wonderful scenic overlooks as well as a geologic wonderland of massive boulders and cliffs. Connected to the Cumberland Trail, it’s a fun adventure for hikers of any age!
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With camera in hand, I recently traveled to middle Tennessee to hike Black Mountain (more on that another time) and Ozone Falls. Situated in the Crab Orchard Mountains on the Cumberland Plateau, this waterfall stands 110-feet and is the 3rd-tallest in Tennessee. Following significant rainfall, the thunderous sound of crashing water echoed throughout the gorge, with a wind-driven column of mist surrounding the plunge pool.
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I recently enjoyed a road trip to Kentucky with a friend and her energetic yellow Labrador Retriever. We visited both Eagle Falls & Cumberland Falls following a substantial rain, with high water colored brown from surface materials swept downstream. Between clouds, sunlight also streamed through heavy mist providing a sustained rainbow over the plunge pool.
Stopping first at the Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, we had a sneak peak of the “Niagara of The South” – Cumberland Falls, which stands 60-feet tall by 125-feet wide. With adjoining counties having issued flood warning advisories, the Cumberland River was flowing fast and loudly:
Renown as the only location in the western hemisphere to have a “Moonbow”, the park provides ample parking, restrooms, visitor center, gift shop, local music and, most important of all, wonderful scenic overlooks. Here are a few examples:
Located near Tellico Plains close to the Cherohala Skyway, the 30-foot Conasauga Falls is a secluded, three-tiered waterfall not far from Knoxville or Chattanooga, Tennessee. The trail is a relatively easy 1.5 mile hike out-and-back, with an elevation gain of 370 feet. And, despite what some people have said online in review of their visit, the gravel roadway to the falls isn’t that bad – just watch for a few deep potholes.
This visit followed an earlier, same day hike to Falls Branch Falls, an adventure organized by my friend, Lara – thanks again!
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I recently hiked to the 70′ Falls Branch Falls, a 2.2 mile (roundtrip) trail located in the Cherokee National Forest near Tellico Plains, Tennessee, along the Cherohala Skyway. It was the first of two hikes that day, the second being Conasauga Falls Trail – more on that another time.
I’d like to acknowledge my friend & her dog for making our hiking adventure so much fun – thanks Lara for your great planning!!!
Directions From Knoxville, TN
take I-40 W / I-75 S to Exit 60 (Sweetwater / Spring City)
turn left on TN-68 S (New Hwy 68) for 24.4 miles
turn left on TN-165 E (Cherohala Skyway / Unicoi Turnpike) for 22.4 miles
parking on left at Rattlesnake Rock
The trailhead is located at the left side of the parking lot, and descends 515-feet to the base of the falls. Along the way, hikers will encounter a sign lacking clarity as to which way to proceed. Fortunately, someone has marked the sign with an arrow pointing left to the falls (see photo, middle):
Toward the end of the trail there is a steep section with loose rocks where hikers should exercise caution, particularly when covered with leaves, or following rain when surfaces may become slippery.
Though no flowers were present along the trail at this time of year, rhododendron plants were in abundance throughout the hike. As such, a return trip to this area in the spring may be in order.
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Following recent rains in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, I returned to Spruce Flats Falls for a two-mile (roundtrip) autumn hike. The trails were quite slippery, as were rocks around the waterfall, even more so with rain-soaked fallen leaves.
I arrived approx. 25 minutes in advance of an elementary school field trip, who immediately shattered the silence of an otherwise serene setting. But, I was able to capture several nice photographs of the area beforehand!
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