Hops and Skips

Tennessee State Park Tour | South Cumberland

I was thirteen years old the first time I stepped foot in South Cumberland State Park. I had the  rudimentary sense of place that comes with a pre-driver’s license existence, when you follow rather than lead and have little sense of your physical place in the context of the world. It was a church youth trip to a Methodist retreat in Beersheba Springs, TN (more on that spot in a later post), and we spent a day rock climbing up and rappelling down the side of an impressive rock face. To a young, impressionable me, it was pivotal – it was grandiose, and it was perilous.

This exact spot, a sheer cliff overlooking a gorgeous valley vista, lodged itself in my mind and memory; it was simply the most amazing display of scenery I’d encountered in my brief life so far. I’ve gone back and visited the same spot a few times in the twenty years since, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized it was part of a state park. 

We’ve developed a family tradition of taking a year-end hike to send off the old before ringing in the new. Granted the extra vacation time of Winter Break, we had the opportunity to go a little further afield, and, having spent a lot of time recently in the state parks encircling Nashville, I wanted a change in scenery – mostly, a new view from a new elevation. It was a mild December day with clear skies, perfect for a leisurely family stroll.

As you follow I-24 E towards Chattanooga, the terrain begins to change as you reach the base of the Appalachian Mountains; as elevation increases, the smooth rolling hills of middle Tennessee turn into the sharper escarpments and ravines of the South Cumberland Plateau. As a result, the park is well-known in the region for its many hikes of scenic overlooks, streams, and waterfalls. South Cumberland is similar to Harpeth River State Park in its geography; it’s actually a cluster of nine disconnected sites that total
over 30,000 acres, making it the second largest park in the TN State Park system. 

The Visitor’s Center is located in the small town of Monteagle and supposedly gives a good overview of the park’s different areas… but with poor luck, it was closed for “year-end inventory” on the day we visited. We took advantage of the picnic tables just outside and enjoyed a very windy lunch before heading out to hike.

One of the park’s most visited areas is Fiery Gizzard, boasting a wildly popular eponymous 12.5-mile one-way trail (named as one of the country’s 25 best trails by Backpacker magazine!) that shows off rock formations, woodlands, scenic vistas, and waterfalls. With two kids in tow, this was definitely not our destination for a quick day trip. Instead, we returned to the spot of my memories – the Stone Door Trail in the Savage Gulf area, which is perfect for any crowd. 

Ever since Colin and I took this hike back in 2015, we’ve labeled it the hike with the “best payoff for the smallest effort.” The trailhead is located next to the Stone Door Ranger Station at Savage Gulf North. The elevation is high from the beginning, the trees dense and skinny with a high canopy that, in winter, leaves you walking through a forest of sticks. There’s very little incline and the first quarter of the trail is paved. Around the point the pavement ends, you’ll reach the Laurel Gulf Overlook, a viewing deck with an expansive panoramic view. At the trail’s official turn-around spot, you’ll encounter a junction that leads to several overlooks and the Great Stone Door, a 10-foot wide, 100-ft deep crack in the bluffs. 

The overlooks are not for those wary of heights; there is no guardrail protection from the cliff’s sheer drop-off, but there’s plenty of room away from the edge to take in the surrounding canyon gulf, some of the most gorgeous views I’ve seen in Tennessee. 

Knowing the terrain, I began to question whether this was a good spot for a hike with small children. Am I too ambitious with our family adventures? Do I too lightly brush aside caution for the sake of adventure experiences? But I think back on my visit to these same rock faces as a young teen and how I fearlessly climbed up the rocks but, faced with the frightening unknown, never mustered the courage to rappel down. Maybe I would’ve had a slightly different memory of that experience had I faced my fears, but the place has stuck with me because I faced something – a new kind of place, a new risk, a new reminder of my size and scale – and my perspective changed. 

With one kid strapped in the baby carrier and the other’s hand held tight, we crept near the edge and marveled at the sheer magnificence this land has to offer. Maybe my three-year-old’s mind won’t remember this moment exactly, but I hope her perspective is changed, too.

Note: This is the first of our park visits that left me feeling unsatisfied (amazing hike notwithstanding!) because we only experienced the smallest piece of all it has to offer. Someday, hopefully this summer, we can make another visit, and when we do, I’ll update this post with new explorations.

CHECKLIST:

Date: December 2020
Count: 11 of 56
Must-See: Catch the impressive scenic views from the short 1.8-mile Stone Door Trail.

GETTING THERE:

Because of its segmentation, there are different routes to get to the various sections of South Cumberland State Park. To reach the Visitor’s Center, exit I-24 at Monteagle (exit 134 from I-24 E). Follow Main Street for about 1 mile; turn left onto Fairmont Ave and follow as it veers right and becomes Tracy Road. You can reach the other tracts of the park via back roads; your GPS will be your best friend. To reach Stone Door and the Savage Gulf area more quickly, exit I-24 E at Manchester (exit 111B).

Click here to read more of our adventures in Tennessee State Parks!

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