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From my vantage, the sandstone chasms stretching through the wilderness look like tentacles. They spread across the Cumberland Plateau and out of view. Scattered within them, 50-foot cascades spill over escarpments into jade pools. It’s no wonder this area, known as Savage Gulf, draws crowds. But not in January. I can see plumes of my breath drift away as I parallel Big Creek midway through an 8.6-mile loop—a small price to pay for getting one of the South’s prettiest spots to myself.
Distance: 8.6 miles (loop)
Time: 2 days
From the Stone Door Ranger Station
(1) Head 1 mile south on the Stone Door Trail to a junction.
(2) Continue south into the gorge via the Big Creek Gulf Trail to complete the loop clockwise. (You could take the Rim Trail and do it counterclockwise, but we recommend tackling the gorge on fresh legs.) Hike 3.6 miles west to Alum Gap.
(3) Split east onto the Big Creek Rim Trail and take it 3 miles back to the Stone Door junction.
(4) Retrace your steps to the parking lot.
Alum Gap (mile 4.6)
Nab one of the sites closer to the gorge (4 through 8) for the best views—and a sunrise with your coffee. You must camp in a designated spot, and the 10 sites at Alum Gap ($3; reserve online) are the only ones along the route. There’s an outhouse, fire rings, and one group campsite (for parties larger than eight). Be sure to top off your water at Big Creek before climbing out of the gorge, as these sites are dry.
In January, some of this area’s many cascades will freeze over into intricate towers, but 60-foot Ranger Falls and 62-foot, two-tiered Greeter Falls flow year-round. To see the former, split south for about .5 mile on the Ranger Falls Trail (near mile 2.8 on day one). Make sure you have room on your memory card for the latter, though: A 1.2-mile walk west from Alum Gap on the Greeter Falls Trail lands you by the 12-foot upper falls. Downclimb to reach the 50-foot lower falls (if you visit in summer, take a dip in the swimming hole here).
Linger at the Stone Door near mile 1 for the best vista on the hike. This 100-foot natural staircase—named for a crack in the rock that looks like a door ajar—faces the limestone escarpment that formed 250 to 325 million years ago when seas covered this area.
Expect daytime temps in the 40s if you go in winter. Beware the slick, often-icy rocks, and be prepared to ford frigid, ankle-deep water once or twice—but nothing beats winter’s solitude. Spring is also chilly, but the budding trees are beautiful. Summer is crowded. Fall showcases the foliage.
DO IT Trailhead 35.446250, -85.656366; 7 miles northeast of Altamont on Stone Door Rd. Permit Required for camping ($3); obtain one at the park office or at bit.do/cumberlandpermit. Custom mapbit.do/BPmapSavageGulfContactbit.do/SouthCumberlandSPTrip databackpacker.com/SavageGulf
- State: TN
- City: Chattanooga, TN
- Distance: 8.6
- Contact: bit.do/SouthCumberlandSP
- Land Type: State Park