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Tennessee: Savage Gulf State Natural Area

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.

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