The following is a trip story completed about Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau in the Savage Gulf Area. You can also follow and SUBSCRIBE to the author’s and other’s adventures on Facebook at Backpacker’s Yonderlust Facebook Group and also on YouTube at Backpacker’s Yonderlust Channel
It all started with a simple text to my hiking buddy with the message “We need to get out! What do you think?” Cody promptly responded back that we should and with a little prodding on spots, he replied back ” Stone Door in the Cumberland?”
I had not considered or even looked into this area between Nashville and Chattanooga because I am always on this quest to find high peaks and that usually takes me to the Smokies of North Carolina and Tennessee. But this sparked my interest and I performed a web search for the location and some YouTube videos to see what it had to offer.
I was quickly taken in with the posted photographic views of hikers standing on gorge rims looking down into deep valleys. The State’s website mentioned that the Rim and Gulf trails along Big Creek were considered moderate to difficult with beautiful waterfalls and expanding views as a couple of the many rewards. Certainly sounded like my kind of hike.
This was a nine mile trip that did not seem difficult with 1500 feet of elevation change on a loop that would bring us back out to the ranger station.
So we agreed that this would be our overnight trip and decided to include a new hiking buddy, Rob, on his first journey with us. Cody made our State Park required reservation for site 4 in the Alum Gap camp that is only accessible by foot. With all this in place, we were only waiting for Saturday Morning and the work week to end.
Saturday – DAY 1
Cody sent me a text around 6:10am declaring “I am in the driveway”. I was just finishing lacing my shoes and a cup of coffee with a protein bar. I stuck my head out the kitchen door and hit the garage door opener that quickly revealed a waiting car in the drive. Enthusiastically, I grabbed my pack and headed out the door with a quick kiss to my wife and a promise that I would be safe.
Loading up my gear gave Cody and me a chance to discuss the weather ahead of us. “It’s going to be HOT.” I said to him. “You bring electrolyte packs? It’s going to be 100/100” referring to the temperature and humidity. “Yup….” Cody replied. I thought this was a good answer because both of us knew the effects of dehydrating, but also losing electrolytes and how that ravaged the body and its ability to use the water to keep all onboard systems operating. On a recent trip, I had lightly snacked and drank water throughout the day. By the time we got to our camp on that trip, I was spent and would have just slept on a rock. I filled up on water and ate a good dinner that night and realized that you have to consciously feed and water the machine throughout the day. This trip was going to be much hotter and difficult, so we were prepared.
We hit the road in North Alabama and headed to a nice community 30 minutes up the road to pick up our invited guest, Rob. We arrived at Rob’s house and he stepped out carrying an external framed Kelty 65 liter loaded down with his gear for this trip. Rob a quite friendly guy and family man seemed like a good choice to expand our clan. A retired marine and an engineer who worked to design auto pilot systems seemed certainly a useful set of skills for taking on an overnight adventure.
Rob, who had not hiked in years, said something about the weight of his pack. I was quite proud about mine. I have learned, as a fifty something year old guy, that the “Best Intervention for someone carrying to much and a heavy pack is to let them carry it. It is a great humiliator and teacher.” I said something about mine being 34 pounds with 5 pounds being water and 3 pounds being camera gear. While not ultralight, it was a great achievement in my mind. Rob listened but did not sway as the aforementioned “intervention” is truly the only teacher for any packer. Ask an Appalachian Trail hiker about his/her shake down at Blood Mountain (Mountain Crossings) where their unneeded gear was mailed back home. They may shed a pound or pounds, but all will shed weight after the pack settles in on our bones and muscles.
We drove from Huntsville, Alabama about two hours northeast to Monteagle, TN to the Savage Gulf State Natural Area. The park is around 31,000 acres in nine separate areas. The area was hilly with switchback roads and gave us a true sense that we were moving up in the sky as I have always preferred.
When we arrived, we unloaded and headed to the ranger station. There is a water filling station, restrooms and trail boards at the entrance. I decided to hit the bathroom before heading off because we had downed a couple liters of water at the trailhead to hydrate prior to walking in. As we walked in, there were two guys in their late 20’s brushing their teeth and practicing their best hygiene in a perfect and odd rhythm. Cody had followed me in and they both looked at us in the mirror. Even though we are the type to offer help to the meekest of creatures, something about us must have intimidated these dudes because, in unison, the quickly spit, packed their belongings and exited the bathroom with flip flop heels rapidly smacking the bottom of their feet as they headed off. Cody and I looked at each other and smiled laughingly because of the unintended awkwardness of this encounter.
We walked to the ranger station. A very nice older lady was working inside. Rob quickly struck up a conversation and was chatting intensively with her. I was half heartedly listening while checking out photos, maps and other forest notices, but overheard something about “eating a rattlesnake will kill you”. The room beeped. The nice lady complained that the beeping was going to drive her crazy and we offered to help. It appears the Ranger’s microwave was beeping and with no way to figure out how to make it stop, we switched off the power strip that was supplying the electricity to it. I made sure to tell her to make sure the ranger knew, because I did not want to be the reason for a cold lunch. We signed in with our hike plan and names then grabbed a few maps and headed down the trail. With the three of us heading down the paved path, I asked Rob about the rattlesnake. It appears, according to the nice lady, that a rattlesnake biting itself will poison the meat and kill the consumer DEAD!
“Hmmmm”, I said and while dismissing this knowing I would likely never eat a snake or believe this story. It was not long before my inner 12 year old kicked in and I went to my electronic Verizon Phone “know it all”. After a quick internet search, I found a person who claimed to be a snake expert with some snake sounding credentials. He had written that “Venomous snakes are not really in the habit of biting themselves…. But the venom is a protein substance and the mere act of cooking the meat would break it down rapidly to harmless molecules.” So now I half heartedly knew, but whether true or not, I just figured that I would never eat a snake. If I was required to, I would cook the life totally out of it. The beauty of backpacking is that it allows you to ponder the important things in life such as food safety regarding snakes.
We walked for a while and I was beginning to question the “Wilderness” because we were well into it and still on an asphalt paved path.
After a period of time, though, the paved path came to an end and a dirt trail took us about 9/10 of a mile to the first overlook on the rim. It was called the Laurel Gulf and was a nicely built deck that enabled many visitors to get a good look at this section of the park. We stopped and posed for a few pictures and moved on as it seemed a bit touristy for what we had come to see.
The next overlook we visited was not for the everyday hiker. While not particularly dangerous, it was not particularly safe if you did not pay attention to the edges and breaks in the boulders. The area was a mountain sized boulder that had spilt off from itself creating a deep crevice that could be crossed by a natural stone bridge. But the hiker should be aware, as with most natural areas, that staying on the path was the key to success and a heartbeat here.
The effort was quite worth the short walk in because it opened up to a less man made view of this wonderful gorge. We were blessed, regardless of heat, with a beautiful sky and stage for our day to play out.
It never fails that we will look for something funny in our adventure to share with others. Unbeknownst to us and as Cody was lining up a funny shot, it appears he was capitalizing where someone had decided to paint their amorous question in anticipation that their significant other would say “yes!” based on his painted words. If you look closely, you will see someone’s marriage proposal painted between Rob and I.
Now in my day, I never would have tagged a rock or a tree with paint or knife, but rather have just used the backdrop of this area. But thats just my view with regard to being maybe less creative and leave no trace supportive.
Right after this visit and overlook, we approached the original request of Cody to visit the Stone Door. The first view is the crooked tree guarding the entrance. When you step in between the void created by this fractured mountain, you enter into a series of rock steps placed so perfect as to enable the hiker to rather easily walk from the top to the bottom and enter the door to the forest below.
After walking down and looking back up, the view reveals the break made in this giant stone:
At this point, the adventure begins as we have passed the last touristy spot that requires minimal effort. After locating the sign and the white metal blazes for the Big Creek Gulf Trail, we focused on the 5 miles ahead of us. We would be backpacking two miles to the Ranger Falls Blue Blazed .4 “In and Out” trail to see Ranger Falls. We would then come back out and continue on the Big Creek Gulf for another 2 miles up to Alum Gap Camp.
The heat and humidity picked up as we descended down into the forest. Rob was sucking water bottles and quickly sweating it out. We reminded each other to keep hydrated and use the electrolytes. The canopy of the trees did provide some comfort and slight cooling in the southern sun.
We saw less people as we descended into the forest, but occasionally came across folks eager to strike up a conversation. Two men and two women walked up and looking at the man, I jokingly asked Cody if he needed any tax advice. He looked perplexed until I pointed out that one of the men was wearing a hat that read “CPA”. Cody laughed at this. With the CPA man smiling, he said “now I know why so many people in Nashville were joking about accountants with me”. It all drew to a quick close as one of the ladies, without a sense of humor quipped “That’s my child’s school.” And that was the end of that…… She turned and walked down the trail drawing her husband and friends with her into the canopy. As soon as she was out of sight, I promptly made funny faces mimicking her, but this was only good for a few moments of quick grins…. we moved on.
The afternoon presented many opportunities for resting in the heat and humidity. If we had taken a different method, the forest would have quickly zapped our energy. Our clothes and anything touching us was wetted with perspiration. Our glasses fogged as we went in out out of shaded areas.
The Gulf Trail flora was dense and beautiful. The area was full of insects and at this temperature and humidity, the forest was almost dripping with its own sweat like a rain forest. Many of the hemlocks were dripping water. This first two miles of gulf trail were laid out as forest dirt paths, dense river rock walks, broken boulders and rock fields in a gradual decline to the river bed. There were very few blow downs but this did not matter. A good pair of tightly laced hiking boots were key to traversing this environment and certainly recommended to anyone who may take this path. Even though the occasional sandal wearer was observed, we dismissed this as someone who had not intended on the track they had taken this day and just did not turn back.
As the map had shown, at two miles in, we came to a trail sign showing the blue blazed path to Ranger Falls. This trail was quite similar to the first two miles but was quite a bit more difficult due to it following in and out of a dry river bed.
Ranger Falls could be heard from several hundred yards away. I did not realize what this meant to our visit at the time, but as I approached the sound became a deafening roar. We had undoubtedly come at the perfect time to see optimal water flow over this wall.
The water fall mist was a natural air conditioner in this little valley. The three of us along with a hiking group of 20 or more people took up at this spot for lunch. We all sat in the coolness of a dry river bed because the water off of this fall immediately goes underground to some subterranean flow that resurfaces much further down in the forest.
The moisture in the air soaked everything in a cool pleasure. The rocks were slippery! Even with a great pair of Solomon 4D’s on, I succeeded in going feet up and landing on my back in a rock laden dry river bed. I was smart enough to tuck my head up and fall on my pack. The only thing hurt was a sore shin and mostly my pride as I had tried to fly and failed in front of 25 or so strangers. Cody said that one lady in the group winced and drew up as I crash landed. He said her look was one of horror as if she was realizing this might have been her. If you know my personality, you will know my response was quite sincere in saying to him “I would have loved to have seen her face!” I have always enjoyed drawing a reaction and missed my opportunity to see this as my fall was quite unplanned. Yet it must have been as beautiful as any Hollywood stunt for a major motion picture action adventure. So with no observation, crisis averted and a sore shin, I made my way over to a flat spot off the bed to enjoy the coolness and lick my wounds. My shin began to throb a bit letting me know that I needed to be much more careful.
I decided to eat my lunch and watch my waterfall video and associated photos. Soon the pain subsided a bit and the other hikers left. Cody, Rob and I had the falls to ourselves. Everything was wet. It was due to sweat, humidity and waterfall mist. I had to use some of my precious dry toilet paper in a Ziplock to dry my glasses to be able to see. Still, we sat back and enjoyed the view and cool temps for a bit before filling our water bottles and heading back out to the Big Creek Gulf Trail. I ate tortillas, beef jerky, cashews and peanut butter as I soaked in this day.
The trail was distinctly more uphill after we re-entered the gulf trail. Our legs immediately made us aware and we began to pace ourselves so not to burn them or our aerobic capacity to early. After the first half mile headed to Alum Gap Camp, we found ourselves taking more breaks to rest ourselves but also to provide Rob a bit more rest as he had not been out on the trail in about four years. About a quarter mile later, we came across a nice rapids that also dropped of into a subterranean sink creating another dry riverbed until it resurfaced somewhere in the forest.
It was accompanied by a smaller water feature that if not outclassed by the previous two would have been quite enjoyable to discover.
Soon we moved on finding our first snake. It was a small ring neck with a black body and a yellow band just behind its head. It was about the size of a giant nightcrawler measuring no more than 7 – 8 inches, but enjoyable to see just the same. We saw it sliver off into the leaf litter and we were gone.
With about a mile to go to our camp, we were really beginning to feel the heat. You can always tell when you are running low because the mental side of backpacking kicks in. It usually starts with “Where are we on the map” followed up with the same question a short time later, and again and again. Our friend, Rob, was that guy…. We were all beginning to feel the pain of a 12 to maybe 18% grade with no leveling out. Still quite wet from all the moisture, Rob reached into his pocket for his map. He pulled it out and began to unfold it. It began to fall apart as it was returning to factory wet pulp. He slowly looked up at us and said “what happened to my map” in a depressed hot miserable way. Feeling the same, I just said “it disintegrated brother, its dead, its gone”. He did not look happy or comforted by my answer. I pulled out my map from my hip belt and matched it up to our terrain and knowing my pace count then estimated a position. My Garmin GPS was jumping around on position with the depth of the canyon walls and tree cover trying to confuse it. I put us at just over a mile out and this was backed up by a young trail runner who was making his way through. I asked him how far to Alum Gap and he said about a mile. That was great as far as my navigation skills are concerned, but then he dropped a DEPRESSING bomb on us. He said with that look of youth talking respectfully to OLD MEN…. “It’s all up hill guys”. I quickly responded back with “Cool, no problem” but inside, I was thinking much the opposite and off he ran. I realized my response back to him probably sounded defensive and reactionary. He probably thought “good luck old man” as he leaped and pounced through the forest. I hoped my “Thanks” to him was sincere as we parted.
Looking at Cody and Rob, we never questioned where we were and direction. I told them “The forest gives you three options. Walk from A to B, be rescued or die.” Since I have only ever walked from A to B, the other two options were just silly talk and my typical sarcasm hoping to get a response, but it fell short and we continued up the trail continuing to make banter about a bunch of topics.
This last mile did not concern me because I had just come off a trip to Clingman’s Dome, Grand Father Mountain and Skyline Drive to hit several spots on the Appalachian Trail. It was not going to be as nice as low humidity and 78 degrees Fahrenheit but I knew slow and steady wins the trail. We just had to hydrate and keep moving up…. and we did.
At one point, Cody began singing Folsom Prison Blues. I happen to have this on my iPhone and quietly pulled it up, turned up the volume and decided to ruin all other unseen hikers “quiet wilderness experience” blasting some Johnny Cash for a few minutes on the trail. The song seemed to pick us all up and we were marching forward. The song ended and my iPhone decided to unexpectedly play some old school Tupac. Before I realized, the song played for a minute and Rob grumbled something and jettisoned up the trail. Looking at Cody, I smiled and said “is it the hip hop, Tupac or just a lack of appreciation for the 313?” In which I began to drop some verses of Eminem’s Lose Yourself declaring “no one would win a rap battle with me on the trail!” And “I am from Detroit! I worked 8 Mile!”
Well we only had one mile to go and I walked along quietly singing rap lyrics as cool as my 53 years would allow. It eventually petered away to just a steady walk up that gorge wall.
The trail was never ending and we were approaching 5:00pm. We rested quite a bit for Rob and eventually Cody moved on. Soon he was out of sight and it was Rob and me. We rested often to let Rob keep pace with his current conditioning level. I told him that “this seems like hell now, but when we get to the top…. you will be very proud of what you did”. There were three things going against a non stressed hike: 1. Incline, 2.Heat and 3. Humidity, but we were going to do this.
Eventually Rob needed a break and laid out on the trail. It was a steep section. I knew he was okay and quite comfortable for the moment considering his option. Cody was out of sight but not far off and I took advantage of a 15 minute respite. I drank some water and rested a bit. I wanted to go ahead and march this out to the top, but that was contrary to the needs and encouragement for my new friend.
When Rob was ready to climb some more, we smelled a human smell. Someone was burning citronella! That meant camp was not far off. It seemed to energize us and we began walking. Again, this quickly turned into walk, rest, walk, rest with my new hiking pal, but we were close and kept the momentum up.
Not to long after, we walked upon a wonderful site seeing trail signs announcing the next junctions and best of all Alum Gap Camp.
I walked ahead into camp and found that the parks had done a great job setting up 8 sites spaced far enough apart that you did not really see other sites. There was also a privy in camp and thankfully far enough away from us in the heat of this weekend trip! I walked into site four to find Cody with his pack against a tree with him suspended between two trees in his ENO double nest hammock enjoying a bit of breeze lifting over the canyon wall with rising thermals carrying large birds as entertainment.
We set up camp and did the usual camp things. We talked about today, what’s coming tomorrow and prepared dinner. It was a Mountain House Lasagna meal for me. The guys made their meals and we settled in. I shared my OTC Naproxen with Rob. My back was sore and needed a spot to rest. After dinner, and still being daylight, I found myself tired, hung my food bag, changed clothes and went to lay down in my tent for 15 minutes. It felt good. I awoke at 11:00pm on top of my pad and only a bag liner……….. covered in sweat. I had instead been asleep for a few hours. That was to be my night as I would sleep, wake, dry off the sweat with a bandana and repeat. It was a hot and humid night.
Sunday – Day 2
The night air was heavy. I had not brought a sleeping bag because it was going to be to warm. I did bring my Sea to Summit bag liner with the intention of just placing it on my Klymit Static V sleeping pad.
This was my best option for the conditions. I left my rain fly on but open because of the threat of storms overnight. I woke up occasionally through the night but not until 5:00am did I feel that morning cool spell. I actually pulled the liner over potions of my body that were slightly cold. It felt good and I fell into a deep sleep.
That sleep was solid, but lasted one hour. When I awoke, it felt cool and if I had slept past breakfast. Only 60 minutes had passed and I was ready to get out of the now beginning to warm “sweat lodge”. As I exited, I heard Rob unzip his tent and begin to crawl out but Cody’s tent was silent. I quickly realized someone was in his hammock and he had beat me getting up. When I asked, he said that he went to his tent last night and quickly exited to enter his hammock. Bug net or not, he opted for breeze and open air. He said the bugs did not bother him and he slept wonderful. Quite the opposite from all but one hour of my night.
I stretched my back. The Naproxen had done its job and I was feeling renewed. I had also decided to start wearing full length compression tights after talking with a physical therapist about keeping swelling down and muscles warm. The added benefit would be a permethrin treatment that would lock the ticks out like Fort Knox! It all seemed to work and I was good to start the day.
Cody, swinging from his hammock said “you might want to put your shoes on. There was a copperhead in camp last night”. I thought his advice was sound and went and put my boots on. It appears that when he got up the previous night, he spotted an 18 inch viper near his hammock. Reaching to get his camera, he turned back to see the copperhead make a quick exit through the grass. He finished his dehydration session and re-entered his hammock to sleep.
There was four miles ahead of us to walk out today. It was the ridge trail and would not require the same energy as the previous day. It was going to be hot, so we decided to eat breakfast, break camp, get water and get going. No fire for me… to hot! I opted for a protein bar, almonds and electrolyte strawberry lemonade river water. Rob tossed me a few chocolate coated coffee beans and I reciprocated with a protein bar. Cody heated up water and ate a granola and fruit with milk based concoction that actually looked pretty good.
After, we broke camp and headed to the creek for water. I filled two large Smart Water bottles, Cody and Rob followed suit getting their water.
Cody plopped in the stream because it was like standing in air conditioning. I don’t think Rob noticed his water was coming from the source flowing over Cody’s feet and neither did I until preparing this story. Beyond being funny after the fact, no one has reported any “Foot and Mouth” disease so far.
With water in our packs, we started up the trail back to the ranger station. It was 3.2 to Stone Door and another .90 to the Parking lot.
For the next 2 hours we walked an uneventful four miles along the ridge that took us into the forest and back out to vistas that exposed the forest below. It was such a steady pace it was hard to believe the area were were covering mirrored over the distinctly different gorge below. About halfway along this trail, I heard something familiar. It was the roar of water below! I could not see it, but I could hear Ranger Falls pouring into its subterranean channels. We kept moving on.
About 1.5 hours in, we passed by Stone Door and began to see day hikers, mom’s screaming at children to stay away from the cliff edge and a few unleashed dogs whose owners swear the wont hurt anyone. Hmmmmm.
We approached the Ranger Cabin and I was fortunate to be sprayed in the eyes with some lady’s overspray as she unloaded a can of DEET on herself and friend. We were back and while we had not veered to far out of civilization, it was more than obvious we had returned to the land of unison bathroom tooth brushing performers and snake meat warnings.
I filled my bottle from the cold source at the ranger cabin, drank and sat down on a bench to thank God that He had given me the opportunity to enjoy all He had provided. Including the DEET spray!
Soon we loaded up in our car and headed back to Huntsville, Alabama only to find there was nothing to eat other than growing field corn for two hours. When we reached the city……. We found a burger joint and gorged (the other definition of gorge!) ourselves on processed cow, fried potatoes, bread, drinks and condiments……… and a side salad. It was a good adventure!
Cumberland Plateau is a great treasure in southeastern Tennessee. Be prepared for this hike, though if you visit their parks website, you will see many options for all skill levels. To sum this up in my own words…. Find Your Adventure and it will write your story!
And in closing… Post trip, I have purchased a hammock and all supplies to graduate from the ground dweller to hammock camping. I spent 5 minutes using Cody’s hammock while he was breaking camp and decided that this was for me! So now I can decide on future trips if I want to hang from the trees or hole up on the ground. OPTIONS are good!
Have a blessed day,
More photos from the trip: