Catch Blazing Fall Colors on the Fiery Gizzard Trail

Step into a riot of gold and red foliage less than two hours from Chattanooga on the Fiery Gizzard Trail in South Cumberland State Park, Tennessee
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Leaves near the Fiery Gizzard Trail.

Leaves near the Fiery Gizzard Trail.

I was swallowed hours ago by a densely forested ravine carved into the Cumberland Plateau, which drowns out even the memory of city noise as it surrounds me with golden hickory and bright orange maple. Now, I’m navigating a boulder field past the waterfalls of Big Fiery Gizzard Creek as they tumble through the old growth hemlocks. I’ll explore here all morning before climbing a few hundred feet back onto the plateau, where I’ll gawk at the gorge twisting in bright ribbons of green, red and golden leaves south of here. Tonight’s camp on the plateau promises yipping coyotes and a star-kissed sky; tomorrow I’ll soak my feet beneath 60-foot Foster Falls. I can’t think of a better way to spend my weekend.

Turn-by-turn from the Fiery Gizzard Trailhead

1. Take the Fiery Gizzard Trail (FGT) east .6 mile to silken Hanes Holes Falls, a low but wide cascade that’s the first of five waterfalls on the trail. Descend 500 feet and navigate scree peppered along Big Fiery Gizzard Creek.

2. At mile 1.2, turn left on the Dog Hole Trail for the .2-mile climb onto the plateau.

3. stay on the Dog Hole Trail for 2.5 miles, following the edge of the plateau. At the next trail junction take a .5-mile spur trail right to Raven Point, a rocky prominence overlooking one of the deep, forested valleys cutting into the plateau, then return to the junction and continue straight. Dip down to a bridge spanning McAlloyd Branch before returning to the plateau top.

3. At mile 9.4 quickly descend 200 feet into the Laurel Branch Gorge. Climb to the Laurel Gorge Overlook (mile 10.5), on your right, for views across forested plateaus banded with sporadic sheer cliffs and long streamers of cloud. Walk another .2 mile to reach the Small Wilds Campsite.

4. Day two, hike 1.7 miles to the first view of Foster Falls, plunging 60 feet from the lip of an overhanging cliff. Cross the bridge over Little Gizzard Creek (mile 12.7) before ending at the Foster Falls parking area.

Campsite: Small Wilds Campground

There’s nothing small about the view from Small Wilds Overlook, perched on the edge of a rugged ravine cut into the Cumberland Plateau at mile 10.7; Views range from the rocky slope just across the valley to a long, winding gorge washed in fall’s red and gold. The six nearby campsites hardly ever fill up before late afternoon no matter the season, but in fall solitude is almost guaranteed. Wake up early to catch dawn rays bouncing off the fog that often lifts from the valley below.

Geology

While the nearby Smokies get most of the attention, the Cumberland Plateau has an understated appeal all its own. The plateau rises 1,000 feet above the surrounding landscape, stretching from Alabama to New York, as the result of a slow geologic uplift that began 285 million years ago. Within its dense forests lie waterfalls, Class 5 rivers, and the abundant coal layers that fueled the area’s mining.

Climbing

High-quality sandstone with plenty of cracks and jugs abound near Foster Falls—there are more than 100 sport routes ranging from 5.9-5.13. The south-facing walls enable winter climbing when routes out west are iced up. Check out Climbing’s Chattanooga Destination Guide for beta.

DO IT Trailhead: 35.251804, -85.747537 Season: Year-round; foliage peaks in late-October/early-November Gear Up: Rock/Creek in Chattanooga Permit: Reservations required for backcountry camping ($13).