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Savage Beauty Abides at South Cumberland

Picturesque panoramas easily accessible at Great Stone Door 

With more than 30,000 acres under its auspices, South Cumberland State Park isn’t merly Tennessee’s largest state natural area. It’s also as remote, rugged and optically grand a place as you are likely to find within a day’s drive.

Fortunately for people fortunate enough to find themselves visiting or living near Center Hill Lake, it’s in fact hardly more than a 90-minute hop.

Several State Parks in One

South Cumberland State Park is actually a cluster of scenic getaways. Consisting of 10 different natural-area tracts in Grundy, Franklin, Marion and Sequatchie Counties, it’s more like a small subsystem of state parks than a single large one.

“A popular destination for hikers and campers, nearly 100 miles of trails and 13 primitive campgrounds service the area,” the Friends of the South Cumberland State Park website reports. “In addition to hiking and camping, the park offers opportunities for picnicking, swimming, fishing, caving, visiting historic ruins, rock climbing and rappelling, viewing spectacular rock formations, wildlife and waterfalls.”

It’s a region full of history and natural wonder that many a Middle Tennessee outdoor enthusiast has never properly discovered or adequately explored.

Just a few of the popular destinations are places like Foster Falls, Denny Cove, Grundy State Forest, Grundy Lakes and Sewanee Natural Bridge.

The 12.5-mile Fiery Gizzard Trail features “cascading streams, numerous waterfalls, panoramic overlooks, extremely rocky gorges, gentle slopes and lush woodlands,” thus undoubtedly placing it, in Friends of SCSP’s estimation, among “the most diverse and beautiful in the state.” For that matter, it has been ranked among the best in the United States.

Named, as legend has it, by Davy Crockett after he bit into an overly hot mouthful of victuals while camped in the vicinity, the Fiery Gizzard trailhead is located about three miles from the South Cumberland Visitor Center outside the tourist-friendly mountain hamlet of Monteagle.

Stone-Cold Stunning

Nearest to I-40 and Center Hill Lake, and offering epically expansive rimrock panorama views, is the primally untamed Savage Gulf Natural Area. It consists of a trio of 5-mile-long canyons cut ruthlessly over the aeons into the western edge of Cumberland Plateau. The yawning canyons — or “gulfs,” in the parlance of the gobsmacked Scots-Irish settlers who happened upon the realm — converge together into the Collins River Valley.

In the Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau” installment of  his popular series of outdoor guidebooks, prolific trail-trekker Johnny Molloy describes Savage Gulf’s thousands of wild acres as “an area of waterfalls, bluffs, human history, and all around beauty.”

The July 2000 issue of Backpacker magazine assessed Savage Gulf as “one of the last true wilderness areas left in the South.”

“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,” declared a writer for the magazine. He added, “The view from these cliffs rivals any you will find in the Smoky Mountains.”

Located just 20 miles southeast of McMinnville, Savage’s Gulf’s remarkable Great Stone Door is a masterwork of patient geological artistry.

Stone Door is just an hour’s drive from Smithville, or a pleasurably scenic hour and a half from Cookeville. It gets its name from a narrow, deep, steep and traversable crack in the sheer outcrops overlooking a Collins headwater tributary.

Described in the pages of Backpacker magazine as “truly breathtaking,” the Great Stone Door overlook boasts what veteran state park naturalist Randy Hedgepath proclaims is “the best view anywhere in the state of Tennessee.”

Unlike some of the hikes in Savage Gulf, getting to the Stone Door overlook doesn’t necessarily require a heroic demonstration of physical stamina. It’s a fairly flat and mild mile-long stroll from the ranger station parking lot.

The magnificent immensity of the view one encounters immediately upon emerging from the woods-enveloped Stone Door trail onto the wide-open cliff-top overlooks can be a little disorienting. Coming up all at once against so much soaring, multi-directional vastness can literally result in not knowing which way to turn next. Best, though, to avoid swiveling and whirling about uncontrollably, as that could lead to a steep fall in the event one’s equilibrium is compromised by vertigo near a high ledge.

Another impressive canyon-viewing vantage along the trail, though not quite so dizzying, is Laurel Gulf Overlook. At just of a quarter mile from the ranger station, and situated on a wooden deck at the end of a paved walkway, it is comfortably accessible to wheelchairs.

Beyond Laurel Gulf Overlook in the direction of Stone Door, the footpath transforms fetchingly into a tramped-and-trodden mulch of forest-floor soil and fine, boot-milled sandstone.

Hikers possessing of hardy constitutions can descend from the Stone Door into the chasm floor and explore a network of demanding but highly rewarding trails. If unsullied solitude is what you seek, this may be your best option. Although owing to the area’s size and general seclusion, it is not entirely uncommon to find yourself agreeably alone along the rim trails and overlooks, particularly on weekdays.

MTSU professor Carroll Van West, Tennessee’s state historian, has written that the Savage Gulf region “is perhaps the most isolated place in the state.”

“Over one hundred years ago, the rugged landscape of Grundy County attracted entrepreneurs who wanted to exploit the minerals underground and the timber on top, as well as entrepreneurs who wanted a respite from their industrialized towns and cities to breath fresh mountain air and enjoy the plateau’s breathtaking scenery,” West wrote in his “Tennessee’s Historic Landscapes: A Traveler’s Guide,” a 1995 survey of noteworthy Volunteer State settlements, communities and architecture.

Periodic Pruning

Savage Gulf’s 800-feet-deep ravines and shelter some of Tennessee’s most pristine stands of old-growth timber outside of Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

But even though the indigenous hemlock and various native hardwoods are now protected from commercial logging, Mother Nature employs clear-cutting techniques of her own on occasion. Massive rockslides will, from time to time, crumble violently away from the bluff faces. The downhill-hurtling boulders often sheer away considerable swaths of virgin forest before coming to rest far below.

In his 1999 book,“The Historic Cumberland Plateau: An Explorer’s Guide,” Russ Manning described how the precipitous crags are prone to intermittent paroxysms of savage remodeling.

“The Savage Gulf forest is kept relatively young by the unstable walls of the canyon which periodically send an avalanche of boulders tumbling into the gorge, cutting down the trees as efficiently as a giant scythe,” wrote Manning. “Even so, the forest is impressive.”

Ranger Hedgepath said he’s witnessed the cataclysmic results firsthand. One morning he said he was gazing out from a rim overlook when he observed what appeared to be a sizable “gash” in the forest across the canyon. “It looked like a big piece of the mountain had disappeared,” he said.

Certain it hadn’t been there the day before, Hedgepath hiked in to investigate, whereupon he discovered that, indeed, “part of the bluff had broken off and fallen down.

“That’s what caused the big gash. Just one morning, there it was,” Hedgepath said. “It happened during the night, I guess.”

For bluff buffs who love everything about Savage Gulf, the fact that it’s still a work in progress just adds to the mystique and majesty of the place.

“The canyons are getting deeper and wider all the time,” said Hedgepath.