Virgin Falls is formed by an underground stream that emerges from a cave, then drops over a 110-foot high cliff before immediately disappearing into another cave at the bottom of the sink. (Photo courtesy Tenn. Dept. of Environment & Conservation)
By Richard Simms
In college 45 years ago, it was a rare weekend when my friends and I weren’t in the field somewhere hunting, fishing, canoeing or backpacking. I had the lousy grades to prove it.
I well remember one particular weekend when we opted to go backpacking and camping at what was then a relatively new state natural area called Virgin Falls in White County, Tenn.
It was a 4.5-mile hike into the beautiful waterfall on a winter day. Virgin Falls is unique in that it flows from a cave at the top of a cliff and then disappears into a second cave at its base.
We made camp at the falls, did the campfire thing as backpackers normally do, and then curled up in sleeping bags for the night…. no tents. The trees laid barren by the winter’s cold were our only feeble protection from the elements.
Sometime in the night, we woke up to a light rain falling. There were four of us and we simply lined up side-by-side and pulled a big sheet of plastic to cover all of us and fell soundly back to sleep.
I was the first to wake up the next morning and realized I was incredibly warm for what I knew were sub-freezing temperatures. I stuck my head out of the sleeping bag like a turtle coming out of its shell and was greeted only by total darkness. A little frightened I tried to sit up… and couldn’t. A heavy weight had me pinned to the ground like a dart.
With a little more effort, inspired by panic, I managed to pull myself free from the ground and managed to push the plastic away.
I was greeted by a sight I will never forget.
The forest and the very aptly named Virgin Falls was blanketed in four inches of freshly fallen snow. The phrase “winter wonderland” didn’t come close to describing the scene. Now, decades later, I can still feel the weight of the snow pinning me to the ground… and the sight of Virgin Falls in all its winter glory.
That’s why I am especially happy that the pristine area has been permanently protected so others can perhaps awake one morning to such a sight.
It’s been about three years since the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation acquired the 1,157-acre natural area.
The area is noted for its unique geological features and several other waterfalls including Big Laurel, Sheep Cave Falls, and Big Branch Falls. There are several notable caves in the area, including the cave above Virgin Falls where the stream itself originates.
Due to white nose syndrome (in bats), all caves on the area are closed to recreational use.
A Note of Caution and Awareness!
The hike into Virgin Falls, which will total around nine miles round trip, should be considered a strenuous hike. The trail sscends around 900 feet in elevation along a path that is rocky with uneven footing in many areas. Please allow 5 to 9 hours for the hike.
And it is recommended to start the hike early in the day in order to give yourself plenty of daylight. Know your physical ability! And be prepared with water, food, and clothing for the season.
All hikers should let a family member or a friend know of their hiking plans and their expected time back home.
At 1.5 miles there is a cable crossing at Big Laurel Creek, but if the creek is flooding, do not attempt to cross.
The trail leaving the parking area meanders down to the Big Branch of the Big Laurel Creek through an upland oak-hickory/chestnut oak hardwood forest crisscrossing a fern dominated upland drainage.
Upon descending into the gorge, the vegetation changes to hemlock and mixed mesophytic forest which includes maples, oaks, tulip poplar, hickories, buckeye, basswood, cherry, yellow birch, sycamore, and many more species. Mountain laurel, magnolia and several ericaceous shrubs (such as various wild blueberries) are common along the trail.
The trails pass by small rockhouses, boulder fields, sinks, caves, and waterfalls on route to Virgin Falls where the trail ends.
The distance to Virgin Falls is four miles one way and there are designated camping sites off the trail.
Backcountry camping is permitted at designated campsites only.
Backpackers are required to use the online reservation system in order to ensure that they have a campsite.
Considered a Class II Natural & Scientific Area, hunting and fishing are NOT allowed on the area.
Virgin Falls is located south off of US Hwy 70 between Sparta and Crossville. From Sparta, head east through town out Hwy 70, approximately 11 miles. Turn right on Eastland Road (at the Headstart building, and the turn has signs), proceed 6 miles to the junction of Scotts Gulf road (also signed), then on 2 miles to the parking lot on the right side (west side) of the road.