Get there35.854126, -85.282223; 111 miles east of Nashville on Scott Gulf Rd. Gear upREI, 261 Franklin Rd., Brentwood; (615) 376-4248; rei.com SeasonLate March through May brings blooming wildflowers; late October explodes with changing foliage; December through February delivers solitude. PermitsNone Contact(931) 836-3552; Website
Tennessee:Virgin Falls Pocket Wilderness
Nicknamed the “Land of Falling Water,” this area’s subterranean creeks flow through caves and beneath overhanging cliffs before emerging into daylight for a spectacular show. Start this 9.4-mile overnight lollipop loop at the trailhead off Scott’s Gulf Road (1), descending into the steep limestone canyon created by the Caney Fork River. “Bring trekking poles,” says Rebecca Triplett.
“The trails are rocky and you’ll want them for balance.” At mile 1.4, reach Big Branch Falls (2), which pours off a 25-foot-tall series of granite steps. Cross Big Laurel Creek. One mile later using the cable to steady yourself if water is high (stay on the downstream side). Continue through a forest of maple, oak, beech, and cedar until the .5-mile (one-way) side trail(3) to Martha’s Pretty Point, with stay-awhile views over a vast tract of old-growth forest.
“Plan to have a long lunch while taking in the views,” says Lorraine Floyd. “Leave the overlook by 1 p.m., and you’ll have plenty of time to get to camp before dark.” Farther south, water cascades over a 40-foot shelf at Big Laurel Falls (4) before draining into a cave. Go south at the trail junction at mile 3.5 to begin the loop section (this directionmakes the descent steeper, but affords extra time to poke around the next day), and arrive at the star attraction: Virgin Falls (5), which emerges from a cave and tumbles 110 feet straight underground.
“The campsite here is nestled in a blanket of green hardwoods, and the lullaby of water crashing onto the rocks below makes for a relaxing night of sleep,” Floyd says. Next day, continue clockwise .8 mile to Sheep Cave (6), which is shrouded with a curtain of falling water. (Note: Caves are closed to protect bats from White Nose Syndrome.) From the junction, it’s 3.5 uphill miles out (7).