Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Virgin Falls

Virgin Falls; Scott’s Gulf adjacent to the Bridgestone/Firestone Wilderness Management Area on the Cumberland Plateau dividing East- and Middle-Tennessee.
Virgin Falls has a knack for making you question your hiking skills before you even manage to get on the trail.  The moment you leave the trailhead parking, you’re assaulted with signage everywhere with various warnings ranging from:

    “Stay on the trail; hikers have gotten lost here and there is no cell phone coverage so help is not going to be here quickly!” to
    “Backpackers, sign this log so we know you’re here and how many are in your party!” to, finally,
    “This is a very strenuous 9-mile round trip hike with a water crossings and heavy, steady ascents on exit; this trail is not recommended for non-experienced hikers and make sure you allow yourself enough time to complete the trail!”. 

When you start down the trail, you’re curious just how daunting it will become.  After all, the immediate terrain is flat and unremarkable.  Bandit McKaye and I struck out on the trail around 8 a.m. with the promise of mild temperatures and a cloudless sky.  Simply stated, it was the perfect day for a hike.  Because we have never been to this area, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but there were only a couple of cars at the trailhead and the above-mentioned signs made me think it would be a peaceful, quiet hike.  We followed the flat terrain across the top of a ridge for about ½ a mile when the trail met up with, and followed, a slow, quiet mountain creek.  We followed the creek for awhile as it slowly but steadily increased in size.  Before long it grew from a creek to a stream to a babbling brook.  At this point, the terrain went from straight and simple to a steady decent.  The footing was still easy and, in the distance, we could hear the brook growing into rapids.  It was here that we found something we have never really done before: a cabled creek crossing.  The water wasn’t very high so I grabbed onto the cable only as a gesture and we trekked across the tops of the rocks.  The trail continued downward at a steady pace and the babbling rapids soon gave way to the thunder of an upcoming waterfall.  I knew it was far too soon to be the Virgin Falls the trail was named after, so I was quite pleased to think we were going to have multiple falls to view.  With the sound of the falls calling to us, we came to a split in the trail, one sign pointing to “The Overlook 0.5” and the other to Virgin Falls… we had plenty of time and – because it was early – energy, so we decided to take the spur to the top of the ridge. 

We broke to the trail on the right and veered onto a steep switchback that meandered up the side of the ridge.  While the sign told us it was only a half-mile to the overlook, as with any steep trail, you start to question the validity of the distance marker about ¾ of the way up.  Breathing heavy, we came to something else we’ve never encountered before: a ladder going up a ledge next to a muddy trickling slope.  Well, McKaye, being a quadruped, isn’t exactly equipped to handle a ladder… so we opted to go off-trail for a moment and put it in 4-wheel-drive.  We slipped and slopped our way through the trickle-fed mud slope and then carried on. It was the last major hurdle, it seems, and within just a few hundred yards we found ourselves at Martha’s Pretty Point where 2 separate camping sites were set up with overnight backpackers.  It was relatively early and McKaye has a knack for making people feel intimidated, so I beckoned a hello and “gorgeous morning” to those who were awake and meandering around.  McKaye and I strode over to the bluff and sat for a moment, taking in the view of the valley gorge and the ridgeline on the far side.  Worried we were disturbing those who were asleep, we quickly departed and headed back down trail for a nearby, uninhabited rock that provided a scenic vantage.  We again admired the view (well, I admired while McKaye laid on the cool rock bluff) for a moment before heading back down the spur, making a mental note that it would be a great place to have an overnight visit as long as you had plenty of water in tow. 

At the bottom of the ridge (which felt true to it’s 0.5 mile distance on the way down) we continued on toward the first of the thundering waterfalls.  It wasn’t much further, though the terrain became distinctly more steep and the footing more rocky.  Within a mile, we spotted Big Laurel Falls, the first of the falls on our hike.  I was immediately enamored by the falls, which had gathered quite a bit of volume by this point, but the cool factor surrounded that the gorge immediately after the falls was completely barren of water.  Where was it going?  I was lookin at the falls going over the edge yet the immediate view after the falls was as dry as the top of the ridge!  We walked further down the trail and then crossed down to Big Laurel Campsite and Falls to marvel that the water came rushing over a ledge that carved itself deeply backward into the rock… the water that fell from the top ran backwards to the ledge and then disappeared under the ground.  Needing a closer inspection, we traversed over rocks and boulders to the other side of the falls – the side that is actually nearer the trail – and the cold that was emanating from the area behind the falls was almost tangible.  Even though the temperature was still very mild – maybe 55-degree – the temperature at the base of the falls’ cave was barely above freezing.  Steam rolled off of my heated body in waves and McKaye’s breath steamed the air with each huff. 

Knowing we still had quite a bit of hike to go  (and already seeing how steep the trip out would be) we didn’t linger long.  Back on the trail I continued to marvel for the next half mile on how the gorge, which was carved and lush, so perfectly hid the raging river under the surface.  I wondered for quite some time as I marveled at this on if that was the water that fed Virgin Falls. 
About a mile further ahead I heard the unmistakable sound of more water in the distance, the sound often feeling as if it just “appeared” because it’s akin to wind bustling through trees.  I strained my ears and then my eyes and, off in the distance through the bare trees I saw the refraction of sunlight from the broken surface of the river.  I wondered where it had emerged and if I was going to see that place.  I thought the trail would lead me there but, a little further, I came to another sign that read Virgin Falls to the left (0.5 mi) or Virgin Falls via Sheep Cave to the right (0.8 mi). Well, how could I pass up two sights instead of one?!  We veered to the right and before long we passed a tiny cave opening, perhaps large enough for one person and not something that I thought warranted my 0.3 mile side-trek.  But just around the bend after the cave we came to a very cool waterfall and I wondered at first it if was Virgin Falls.  While we didn’t trek to the top of the falls, it fell dozens of feet from the top of the ridge, through a crevasse, hidden for a moment where the rocks had not yet given up their grip holding the crevasse together, and then visible again for just a moment as it plunged deep into the ground.  How amazing!  Not one waterfall that disappeared immediately into the earth, but TWO!  I followed the trail for a moment, enamored by the falls when we came into view of a sign: “Virgin Falls, Left”.  Well… this wasn’t even Virgin Falls yet! 

Excitement renewed, we didn’t bother to trek to the top of Sheep Cave Falls, deciding instead to see the trails’ namesake.  We trekked just a bit further and were almost immediately rewarded with a glimpse of the falls.  Honestly, my first thought was “well, these aren’t as cool as the others we passed to get here!” but, thankfully, the closer and closer we got, the more impressive the falls became.  While at first you can only see the top 1/3 of the falls (thereby wondering how big they are and coming up short) they steadily revealed themselves as larger than Sheep Cave Falls (the ones we had just passed) and more voluminous than Big Laurel Falls (the first one that had enamored us).  Finally we had arrived and settled onto a moss-covered rock to simply stare in wonder.  The falls were about 25-feet wide with a steady volume of water cascading over the edge of the bluff and falling over 100 feet to the rock below.  The most amazing part was the lack of water at the bottom of the falls.  There wasn’t a river raging onward.  There wasn’t a pool.  There wasn’t even a puddle.  The water immediately disappeared (likely, again, going immediately into an underground cave river system).  The surrealism of seeing that water – that much water  - and it not being in evidence at the bottom of the falls was… well, just odd.  After a few minutes of marveling I simply had to see what was at the top of the falls, so we headed up the spur.  The top was almost as amazing as the bottom… at the top of the ridge we could easily spy the water coming from the mouth of a cave and, after about 10 feet of exposure, crossing under a natural bridge for 10 feet before traveling another 25 feet to immediately cascade over the bluff.  I found myself looking from the cave on my immediately right to the earthen bridge I was standing atop to where the falls occurred on my immediate left.  It was enthralling and mystifying at the amazing features of the area.  McKaye, on the other hand, was not caring nearly as much about the view and more about the water he wanted a sip of.  We carefully walked over some large rocks (he took coercion) to where the water was emerging from the cave.  He lapped up some of the coldest and clearest water I have ever seen (I admit I took a few handfuls myself to splash on my sweat-sticky face). 

Our destination being reached, it was time to trek back.  I checked my watch and it was 10:30.  It had taken us about 2.5 hours to trek to the falls.  I knew the trip out would be more cumbersome and it was time to get moving.  We opted, on the trip out, to take the route that was previously advertised as the shorter leg of the loop, bypassing a second view of Sheep Cave Falls.  Shorter, in this case, merely meant steeper.  We huffed and puffed as we trudged up the exceedingly steep ridge, part of it being more akin to rock climbing/scrambling than hiking.  Within a quarter of a mile, we were both winded and Bandit McKaye, being the more out-of-shape of the two of us, made it to the top of the ridge and immediately threw up most of the water he had just drank.  I decided he (and I) needed a break and we were in a great snacking spot.  I set him out a small bit of water and I snacked on some trail mix.  The wind rustled from every angle and the cry of a red-tailed hawk sang to us on the breeze.  Before long a sound drew my attention (not McKaye’s… he was busy napping) and I watched three very healthy-sized white-tailed deer perusing the mountainside.  I finished my snack and watched the deer until they were near the bottom of the ridge and out of sight before coercing McKaye to get up and get going.  The trek back was, as originally advertised, a very steady incline after that which seemed to go on for eons.  The trail out brought far more people who, like us, decided it was a perfect day for a hike.  My guess is that most of the people I saw weren’t going to make it to the falls… well, not the namesake falls.  They were coming in well after noon and many of them were toting small children and, in one case, a man had a baby strapped into a backpack and was literally carrying a small dog crate… which admittedly gave me pause.  We also encountered a woman after my own heart on the way out; she had a huge backpack strapped on and was leashed to two boxers (each carrying a pack as well).  We didn’t want to pass them (Bandit has a tendency to be a little overprotective around other dogs) so we crossed the creek at a spot I knew prior to the cable crossing (where I knew she would be slow at best trying to get two dogs and that huge pack across).  The last mile of the hike was the most tiresome, not from the terrain but from McKaye wanting to lie down in the creek and relax every couple hundred feet.  Finally, at 1:30, we made it back to the trailhead where we both piled up in the Rover and, gleefully, headed for some fast food. 

In all I would recommend Virgin Falls to anyone who has the time and physical endurance for the trip.  If you’re afraid of making the 9 mile trek round trip in a single visit, take provisions to overnight.  All of the campsites – Virgin Falls, Big Laurel Falls, or Martha’s Pretty Overlook – are amazing.  The trip itself is strenuous, so be prepared for that and hit the trail at a good time.  The fact that you see multiple unique waterfalls makes the trip (which is worthwhile for any one of the falls, much less all 3!) worth every bit of soreness you’ll earn from it.