Outside magazine, March 1993
In Tennessee's South Cumberland region, you'll hear over and over that Davy Crockett slept here, trapped 'coons there. Here's one you might not hear: Davy Crockett had a bad meal here. As legend has it, the frontiersman was dining beside the campfire one night when he burned his tongue on a hot turkey gizzard, jumped up, and threw the giblet into the nearby creek, which came to be known as the Fiery Gizzard.
Wherever the name came from, it stuck, and today the Fiery Gizzard Trail runs along Big Fiery Gizzard Creek as it drops into Gizzard Cove. The 13-mile trail connects the Grundy Forest State Natural Area with the Foster Falls Small Wild Area, two of the eight parcels of land that make up the South Cumberland Recreation Area.
The South Cumberland region, a tableland that extends south through Tennessee from Crossville to Chattanooga, hasn't achieved the national popularity of Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, 100 miles to the north. But because of the erosion-resistant sandstone that caps the plateau, it offers hikers dramatic, steep-walled canyons, free-falling water, bright spring wildflowers, and a chance to find a little solitude.
If you hike in only one of the area's eight parks, make it the largest: Savage Gulf State Natural Area, with 11,500 acres of wilderness in three converging canyons. Fifty-five miles of trails here meander through hardwoods, laurel, and holly near Suter, Greeter, Laurel, and Savage falls, which drop 25 to 50 feet. For an easy walk, hike the two-mile Stone Door Trail to the Laurel Gorge Overlook and the Great Stone Door, a sloping passageway through a rock bluff, or tackle the 12-mile South Rim Trail. The 12-mile Collins Gulf/Stage Road Historic Loop is more difficult, skirting impressive waterfalls and crossing several creeks and rivers; the trail is impassable in high water.
North of Savage Gulf is Fall Creek Falls State Park, whose 256-foot namesake is the tallest waterfall in the eastern United States. The park also contains Cane Creek and Piney Falls, each 85 feet, and 45-foot Cane Creek Cascades. To duck the day-trippers, pick up a backcountry camping permit at the park nature center and head out on one of the two 25-mile Cane Creek Overnight Loops.
For other remote hikes, go to Virgin Falls Pocket Wilderness, north of Fall Creek Falls. There, a moderate eight-mile trail passes Big Laurel Falls, which drops 30 feet and flows backward into a sinkhole; Sheep Cave, where a creek drips water down a steep cliff into a cave system; and Virgin Falls, which flows out of a cave, sails off a rock lip, plunges 110 feet into a sinkhole, and disappears. Or hike part of the 200-mile Cumberland Trail, which extends the length of the Cumberland Plateau. A 12-mile section leads from Black Mountain across Brady Mountain for distant views of Grassy Cove, a rich farming area nestled in a depression in the plateau surface.
The South Cumberland region lies south of I-40 between Knoxville and Nashville. Take U.S. 127 south to penetrate the area, but check in first at the visitor center near Monteagle, northwest of Chattanooga via I-24 and U.S. 41, for trail maps and camping information; the rangers guide several hikes, too (615-924-2980). From the south or west, you can approach the region along I-24. The South Cumberland and Fall Creek Falls ($6.95, from Mountain Laurel Place, Box 3001, Norris, TN 37828; 615-494-8121) plots 32 hikes in the region, including trailhead directions and route descriptions, along with the South Cumberland's geological and human history. You can camp at Fall Creek Falls State Park ($12 per night) or take a room in the park inn ($50-$64 for a double or $68-$91 for a cabin that sleeps eight, where a two-night minimum stay is required; 615-881-3241). Cumberland Mountain State Park also has campsites ($12) and cabins ($32-$81); call 615-484-6138. If you're not up for camping, check into Jim Oliver's Smokehouse Restaurant and Lodge, off I-24 just west of South Cumberland State Recreation Area ($32-$36 for a double or $90-$116 for a cabin; 615-924-2091), or the Victorian-style Edgeworth Inn in Monteagle ($55-$95 for a double; 615-924-2669).