The Cumberland Plateau is a rugged and rippled slice of tableland that stretches from northern Alabama through parts of northwest Georgia and big chunks of Tennessee, before carving up into the Bluegrass region of eastern Kentucky. The deeply dissected and fragmented plateau is characterized by exposed sedimentary cliff bands, heavily forested hillsides and mountains, tumbling streams, and plunging waterfalls. It’s also a bona fide haven for Southeastern adventurers of all varieties.
In particular, there’s one sizable pocket of plateau just north of Chattanooga, known as the South Cumberland/Monteagle Mountain area, that’s home to some of the Southeast’s finest outdoor offerings. And for weekend warriors and the adventurous-at-heart, it’s more than possible to experience most of the good stuff in one long weekend.
Beginning and ending in Chattanooga, here’s how to string together some of the best outdoor experiences in the South Cumberland along one self-guided, action-packed, three-day tour.
Morning: Wake up early in Chattanooga, and drive roughly an hour to the campus of Sewanee. Sprinkled throughout the campus are numerous trailheads and access points for the 20-mile Perimeter Trail, which wraps around some of the most scenic sections of Monteagle Mountain. One section in particular that’s worth a visit is the short, two-mile amble to Bridal Veil Falls—a shimmering 25-foot cascade that disappears into a karst-carved sinkhole as it falls. The trail itself is doable for most, beginning with a scenic view of the Morgan’s Steep Valley and then looping down for roughly a mile along the white-blazed Bridal Veil Falls Trail, passing rockhouses and towering hardwoods along the way. Once you reach the falls and snap a photo or two, the return to your vehicle is a 400-foot climb from whence you came, which will get your heart pumping and your legs pleasantly burning; it’s the perfect warmup for your first day of South Cumberland adventure.
After your hike, swing by the Stirling’s Coffee House for a quick refuel of warm coffee, toasted bagels with inventive cream cheeses, and unique breakfast sandwiches.
Afternoon: The next stop on your Tennessee tour is the venerable Foster Falls—a gorgeous 60-foot waterfall located in South Cumberland State Park—that is without a doubt one of the best waterfalls in the Chattanooga area. There’s trail access to the base of the falls as well as multiple overlooks from above. Our recommendation is to hike to the bottom, cross the picturesque swinging bridge, and stand at the foot of the plunge pool to admire the falls to your heart’s content.
Once you’re done, continue on the trail a little ways to enjoy some of the best sport climbing in the South. The cliff line is made up of vertical and overhanging sandstone walls that overlook Little Gizzard Creek. With roughly 180 routes at a wide variety of grades and heights, there’s no shortage of problems for all levels of climbers.
Evening: Once you’ve had your climbing fill, it’s time to wind down with a camp night in the Foster Falls Campground. With no less than 26 rustic campsites, you’re bound to find a spot, but reservations are required, so plan accordingly. For more information about rates and reservations, visit the Tennessee State Parks website.
Morning: After a quick breakfast at camp, drive 45 minutes to Savage Gulf State Natural Area. This sprawling 15,590-acre wilderness is home to roughly 50 miles of trails, numerous waterfalls, expansive canyon views, and towering 150-foot bluffs. It’s one of the most rugged and beautiful parcels of land within striking distance of Chattanooga, and one visit couldn’t possibly be enough. For a nice taste of what Savage Gulf is all about, you can’t go wrong with the Greeter Falls Loop Trail—a short loop (less than two miles) that leads to three incredible waterfalls: Upper Greeter Falls, Lower Greeter Falls, and Boardtree Falls.
Afternoon: A visit to Tennessee’s largest state park is up next. Roughly an hour northeast from the Greeter Falls trailhead at Savage Gulf, Fall Creek Falls State Park is a whopping 26,000 acres’ worth of woods, bluffs, and, you guessed it: more waterfalls. The adventure opportunities here are essentially boundless, with day hiking, backpacking, flat water paddling, and road cycling galore. (Heck, there’s even golf! But we’ll steer clear of discussing that one too much.) Perhaps the best way to get an initial taste of the park is to visit the namesake showpiece itself: Fall Creek Falls—an impressive, 256-foot waterfall that’s one of the tallest east of the Rockies. Admire it from the top from the popular viewing platform (maybe even with a picnic spread atop the bluff), or walk down a steep set of stairs to the base of the falls to feel the spray of the water as it smacks against the rocks below.
Evening: Once the sun starts to set, head to the Fall Creek Falls Campground, choose one of the 222 sites on offer, and enjoy a relaxing night of camping and cooking. (If you’re looking for some great recipe recommendations with an Appalachian twist, you can’t go wrong with one of these three options.)
Morning: After some steaming cowboy coffee and oatmeal at camp, it’s time to explore deeper into the heart of the park. In particular, the Paw Paw Trail is a 2.7-mile route that begins at the Fall Creek Falls Nature Center and travels north towards Rockhouse Creek, offering exceptional views of Cane Creek Gorge and Cane Creek Falls along the way. For a worthwhile side-spur, scramble down to the base of Cane Creek Falls via the 0.3-mile Cable Trail. This steep, rugged trail, as the name implies, requires the use of a cable (but that’s all part of the fun!). From here, there’s an exceptional vantage point of Cane Creek Falls and of 125-foot Rockhouse Falls as they both come crashing down into the same shared plunge pool below.
Afternoon: An hour to the northwest is the final stop of your South Cumberland tour: Rock Island State Park. What this park may lack in size (it’s only about 900 acres), it more than makes up for in terms of recreation opportunities. There are nine hiking trails, no less than 60 campsites split between two campgrounds, endless swimming and fishing options, but the biggest draw of all is arguably the whitewater kayaking. Combining unique geology with abundant gradient, Rock Island boasts an exhilarating mix of whitewater, from waterfalls to surfing, that captivate and appeal to paddlers of many skill levels. Even if you’re not a paddler, watching world-class kayakers huck waterfalls from one of the many surrounding trails above is a worthwhile experience.
Evening: Unfortunately, all good things must come to end. In this case, your South Cumberland adventure-extravaganza will end with a circumambulating drive back to Chattanooga through Dunlap and over the backside of Signal Mountain. Fortunately, there’s no need to pout for too long. Instead, grab a beer and burrito at Mojo Burrito and give a celebratory toast to a memorable and adventurous few days spent exploring some of Tennessee’s finest outdoor destinations. We’ll cheers to that!
Originally written by RootsRated for Rock/Creek.
Featured image provided by Jake Wheeler