Tennessee: Savage Gulf State Natural Area

Waterfalls and swimming holes aplenty.
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Waterfalls and swimming holes aplenty.

Little-Known Fact: Cherokee National Forest is Tennessee's only national forest.

If you like the rugged beauty of the Smoky Mountains but can do without the legions of car-driving windshield tourists who invade Great Smoky Mountains National Park, head for Savage Gulf Natural Area. Tucked away along the western edge of Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau, this 11,500-acre Tennessee state park is part of the South Cumberland Recreation Area and remains one of the last true wilderness areas left in the South.

The natural area encompasses the Collins River, Big Creek, and Savage Creek gorges ~ locally known as gulfs ~ and the surrounding plateau. Within the park, the creeks descend more than 800 feet and have carved sheer cliffs out of the layered sandstone. The view from these cliffs rivals any you will find in the Smoky Mountains.

Among the unique features of the Savage Gulf area is the Stone Door, a crack in the rock 10 feet wide and 100 feet deep that provides access from the escarpment to the gorge below. This natural passageway was used for centuries by Native American Indians traversing the wilderness area. There are truly breathtaking views from the Stone Door and the many overlooks along the plateau trails.

Big Creek, 300 feet below, disappears into a sink, only to reappear periodically along the meandering streambed. The many sinks and waterfalls, some as high as 50 feet, provide refreshing swimming holes in the heat of summer and reliable water in late summer and early fall.

There are about 50 miles of well-maintained and marked trails within the park, varying from 9 to 10 miles in length. The area is an ideal location for a weekend outing as well as a short but serious backpacking trip. The level of difficulty varies from an easy stroll on flat terrain to heart-pounding gorge hiking with steep climbs and rocky slopes, and interconnected paths allow dedicated backpackers to traverse the three major gorges without leaving the wilderness.

The Stone Door trail is paved for access to the handicapped and is a popular day visit in spring and fall. The rest of this area is remote.

Contact Information:

South Cumberland State Recreation Area

Rt. 1, Box 2196

Monteagle, TN 37356

(615) 924-2980

Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation

Division of State Parks

401 Church St.

Nashville, TN 37243-0446

(800) 421-6683

Location:

Savage Gulf lies along the Cumberland Plateau of Middle Tennessee, 90 miles southeast of Nashville and 50 miles northwest of Chattanooga. For local restaurants and lodging, Dunlap is 10 miles southeast.

Getting There:

Leave Interstate 24 at Monteagle, Tennessee. Follow U.S. 41 toward Tracy City to the visitor center. There you can get directions to either the Stone Door or Savage Gulf ranger stations.

Seasonal Information:

Savage Gulf can be experienced any time of year, but fall and spring may be the best times to view plantlife.

Summer temperatures average in the high 70's, but temperatures may soar to 100 degrees F and remain for several days. Evening temperatures drop to a more comfortable level atop the plateau.

Winters are usually mild. Although several inches of snow may fall at one time, it seldom lasts more than a few days. The average winter temperature is 43 degrees F.

Wildlife:

Wildlife is abundant. Deer, bobcats, grouse, foxes and hawks thrive in this area, and coyotes have recently moved in. Squirrels, rabbits, woodchucks, and skunks can also be seen. Owls are the local night life.

Insects:

Bees and ticks are usually only a minor problem but may be present.

Plant Life:

Although much of the area has been logged, the forest is recovering and still contains one of the largest virgin stands in this part of the country. Some extremely large oaks also have been spared, thanks to the ruggedness of the terrain, which made timely access difficult for loggers. The forests also abound with hickories, maples, yellow poplars, hemlocks, and pines.

Beneath the forest canopy is a vast array of shrubs, vines, wildflowers, mosses, and ferns which rival the flora of the Great Smoky Mountains in number and variety.

The Cumberland Plateau explodes with color in the spring, with the peak wildflower season occurring April to May. Late October brings spectacular fall colors when the oaks, maples, and other hardwoods display the hues of autumn.

Facilities:

The trail system is interspersed with 10 primitive camping areas that operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Camping is backcountry/hike-in, tents only.

South Cumberland State Park Visitor Center, located between Tracy City and Monteagle on Highway 56, provides information.

Parking:

Motor vehicles are prohibited in the wilderness.

Permits:

Free camping and fire permits are required and must be obtained while registering at one of the ranger stations.

Policies:

  • Motor vehicles are prohibited on area trails. Horses, bicycles, and pack stock are also prohibited on hiking trails.
  • Rock climbing and rappelling are restricted to the Stone Door area. A permit must be obtained.
  • Pets must be kept on a leash.

Hazards:

  • If hiking, don't rely on local water sources. Many of the streams disappear underground or dry up in late summer and early fall, so make sure you carry ample water.
  • During periods of heavy rainfall, streams can become swift and treacherous torrents, so flash flooding is a very real danger.
  • This is rattler and copperhead country, so it is a good idea to stay on the trails.
  • Hunting is allowed in season on the North Plateau, so check with the ranger station for dates when trail sections may be closed to hikers.

Leave No Trace:

Use fire pits provided at campsites.

All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps:

Trail maps are available at the visitor center and at the Stone Door and Savage Gulf ranger stations. The USGS 7.5-minute Altamont and Collins quadrangles cover the area.

Other Trip Options:

  • Prentice Cooper State Forest is 25 miles southeast.
  • Wonder Cave ((615) 467-3060 or (615) 467-3521) is one of the largest and oldest commercial caves in the South. Approximately 7,000 feet in length, it averages eight feet in height and is known for its onyx formation.