Virgin Falls Pocket Wilderness

In East Tennessee, the Great Smokey Mountains National Park gets all of the attention when it comes to hiking and backpacking. The Smokies certainly deserve their big reputation. They’re gorgeous mountains with abundant wildlife and a rich history.

However, most East Tennesseeans live nearly as close to the Cumblerland Plateau, a table of buckled rock and mountains that runs in a north-south line roughly parallel to the Smokies, from Chattanooga in the south up through Crossville to Jamestown in the north. Whereas trails in the Smokies are steep and every inch is covered in lush greenery, the Plateau has milder trails and gentler, rolling terrain. The uplifted rock creates more waterfalls and exposed geological features, from rock shelters to caves and natural bridges. Twin Arches, in Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, is the longest natural bridge east of the Mississippi.

OverlookVirgin Falls Pocket Wilderness is on the Plateau just south of Crossville. It’s owned by Bowater paper mills, which spared it from logging. When a paper company can’t bring itself to log an area, you know it’s spectacular. Honey Creek Pocket Wilderness near Big South Fork is similarly inspiring, and may be the most rewarding five mile roundtrip hike in Tennessee.

WaterfallJesse and I hitched up with the University of Tennessee Canoe and Hiking Club for a trip to Virgin Falls. Randy Bigbee organized and planned the trip. We hiked around this same time of year, in November of, I believe, 1997.

This first waterfall is about 30 feet tall and marks the smaller of the two caves on the trail. It’s a great beginner’s cave. The floor is level, and the ceiling is tall enough to stand upright. There are enough stalagtites and crystal formations to keep anyone’s interest.

Jesse Martin inside the rock overlookThe next few pictures show a magnificent rock shelter. There’s a small waterfall above it that drips into the shelter. The water then disappears underground. This picture is from inside the shelter looking out. That’s Jesse in the red pullover, chicken legs and all.

Click on any image for a larger picture.

Randy Bigbee inside the rock overlookThe competition here was to see who could run all the way up this rock without sliding backwards. That’s Randy, who won the challenge.

virginfalls-thumb.jpgThis is Virgin Falls, a 110 foot waterfall by the Caney Fork River. There’s a deep, eroded basin at the bottom of the falls.

Group photo outside the caveThere’s a narrow, steep trail that takes you to the top of the falls. There you’ll find a wet cave that the water issues from. About 30 feet above that is the entrance to the dry cave. That’s me on the far left wearing a headlamp.

Entering the cave above Virgin Falls
You go down about 20 feet as you enter the mouth of the cave. A short ways in there’s a crevice that’s three or four feet across. We jumped it, then came to another, wider crevice. We didn’t have a lot of caving experience, and no one had any ropes or safety equipment. Breaking an arm or leg inside a cave four miles from a road seemed like a bad idea, so Jesse and I turned around and left the cave.

Everyone made it out OK, and we had a great time in camp on the banks of the river. Virgin Falls is one of my top five backpacking trips, and I’d love to hike there again.

6 Responses to Virgin Falls Pocket Wilderness

  1. Steve says:

    Honey Creek++

    Not my favorite hike in Tennessee — I’m partial to the John Muir trail in the Cherokee, and a couple of others, mostly for sentimental reasons — but definitely the most action packed. There’s something cool around almost literally every bend in the trail. And just watching Janet’s dog climb up the ladders unassisted was worth the trip alone.

  2. Tom Rottinghaus says:

    The last time I went backpacking was around 1997. I was invited to go to Virgin Falls (2004) by a friend and professional photographer/caver. I dug all my backpacking stuff out again and away we went. OH MY GOSH!!! What a stunningly beautiful place. I haven’t seen anything as beautiful or unusual since I vacationed out west. I’d go back in a heartbeat. The hiking is quite strenuous though so if you’re not up to it you may not want to do this trip. I had no idea something this beautiful was only 4 hours from home.

  3. Chris says:

    Virgin Falls is AMAZING!!! We went on a Sunday afternoon and left the trail head at 11:45 and got back at 5: 45 (I have pics to prove that). We went all out to get to the falls and then did some climbing along the bluffs right over the Caney Fork. We dayhiked this place and I do NOT reccomend that, for one it is kinda tough after rock climbing and you miss out on way to much. Stay a night or two on the river and if you feel up too it, I left real nice rope right around the river bend, still anchored as of April 10/2004. It is well worth the climb and time if you are experianced, not reccomending the rock climb for beginers or intermidates….please know what you are doing.

  4. Krissy says:

    I have been going to Virgin Falls for about 8 years now and I read in the newspaper that Bowater is going to sell. Is this true?

  5. Larry E. Matthews says:

    I first went to Virgin Falls in the summer of 1966. I was a geology student at Vanderbilt University at the time, and spotted the name “Virgin Falls” on the 7.5 minute topographic map. According to the map, a stream came off the top of the Cumberland Plateau and disappeared into a sinkhole. Sounded like a good place to find a cave, so two friends and I hiked up there on a hot, summer day. (No trails back then !)

    The 7.5 minute topo maps were made from aerial photographs. Keep this in mind.

    When we got there, we found the waterfall, droping into a very steep sinkhole. Sure enough, there was a cave at the bottom and the water flowed into this cave. But, immediately inside was a 40-50 foot deep pit and we did not have ropes with us. For no real reason, we hiked up to the TOP of the waterfall. Much to our surprise, there was no stream flowing down the mountainside as shown on the topo map. What there was, was a beautiful spring with a large cave entrance just behind it. We entered and explored Virgin Falls Cave. We were the first cavers to do so and write up our discovery, but surely local people had known of this cave for years and gone in at least a little ways.

    It was such a beautiful site, I reported it to the Tennessee Division of Geology, who in turn reported it to the TN Parks people. When they saw it, they wanted to buy it for a park, but Bowaters did not want to sell. A compromise was reached, and the FIRST State Natural Area was formed.

    Larry E. Matthews
    Professional Geologist

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