By Heather Mullinix
Natural beauty is abundant in Tennessee, but there are many jewels that require an investment of shoe leather and sweat to see up close and personal. In return, they pay you back ten-fold with fresh air, sunshine and some of the most breathtaking views you can find anywhere.
One such place is Virgin Falls State Natural Area, tucked away just off Hwy. 70 W. between Crossville and Sparta. The title feature is the 110-foot waterfall that erupts from an underground stream, falls over the rocky ledge and disappears underground again at the bottom, emerging again as a spring at the base of the Cumberland Escarpment. But that's not all this 1,157 state natural area has to offer.
There are not one, not two, but three other waterfalls to be found on the roughly nine-mile hike, each with its own unique characteristics and each an amazing example of the beauty Mother Nature can provide if allowed to do so.
For many years, the state of Tennessee has managed Virgin Falls through a lease with the private landowners. It was set aside for preservation in the 1970s as a Bowater Pocket Wilderness Area, allowing hikers to tackle the strenuous trail. The state purchased the Bowater lease in 2006, but the land remained in the hands of four different private entities and was at risk for development when the lease expired.
In December, the state purchased the site and dedicated it as a state natural area, one of only 82 sites in the state to earn such designation. State natural areas represent some of Tennessee's best examples of intact ecosystems. Virgin Falls certainly fits that description, with its unique geological features that are great examples of the karst geology found on the Cumberland Plateau, and the protected plant and wildlife species that call the area home. These are the Virginia spiraea, a native wildflower classified as federally threatened and state endangered; Cumberland rosemary, a native plant classified as federally and state threatened; bluemask darter, a freshwater fish classified as federally and state endangered; and the Indiana bat, a medium-size bat native to North America classified as federally and state endangered.
The hike itself is about 8 miles, with hikers taking a trail in to the natural area, looping around Virgin Falls and then hiking back out to the parking area. It is not for the faint of heart. The trail is rated strenuous. Come prepared to spend five to eight hours communing with nature, or enjoy a leisurely pace and take advantage of the beautiful designated overnight backcountry camp sites available. Take only pictures and leave only footprints, but remember to bring water to drink and some food to keep you fueled.
The trail is leisurely at first, winding down the Big Branch drainage area. You'll walk through a mature hardwood forest, with lots of oak and hickory trees. As the trail starts into the gorge of Scott's Gulf, the vegetation changes, with hemlock and maples, Tennessee's state tree the tulip poplar.
Sturdy shoes are a good idea, and perhaps even a dry pair of socks would be useful, as there are a few spots where you'll have to cross water. The area is prone to flash flooding, so be sure to check the weather before heading out, too.
Gulf Trading Post, on Eastland Rd. just before the turn to the parking area, offers maps of the area, as well as a last chance for provisions.
The first waterfall you'll come to, at 1.35 miles, is Big Branch Falls, and then leads away from the water for a bit. At 1.5 miles, there is another water crossing. You'll want to use the cable provided to help cross on the rocks in the stream, especially if the water is flowing fast. Crossing here may be dangerous in high water, so please, use caution.
Once across Big Laurel Creek, you find the first camping site.
It is also close to the overlook trail, a side trail to an overlook of the Caney Fork River. There is a camping site at the overlook.
Enjoying the view will add to your mileage and the time it takes to complete the hike to Virgin Falls. When you return to the trail, you work your way beneath a small rock bluff. Be careful not to bump your head. Then the trail descends to Big Laurel Falls, the second waterfall and another overnight camping area. There is a rock house underneath the waterfall ledge, and there are plenty of large rocks perfect for a picnic. At this point, you are about halfway to your destination.
As the trail continues, a choice must be made. The trail splits at the Virgin Falls Loop. If you go right, you get to see a third waterfall, Sheep Cave Falls, on your way to Virgin Falls.
A campsite is located near the falls, as well. The flow from the underground stream varies during the year. On the first weekend in March, it was flowing fast and furious, and then disappearing underground. The trail was also packed with other adventurers looking for a treat on such a beautiful day. Many were choosing to stay the night, with campsites that were empty on the hike in looking fairly packed on the hike out.
After a brief rest, some water and a little trail mix, it was time to head back to the car. Remember, what goes down must walk back up, and this is where the trail becomes challenging. There is an incline for about about mile as you retrace your steps back to the parking area. Allow plenty of time and rest as you need. You'll notice things on the way back you may have missed, and the slower speed you're forced to take as you work your way up hills and over rocks can let you appreciate the wild mountain laurel and wild blueberries common along the trail.