On day two of our stay in Sparta, TN, we started early for a Sunday hike to Virgin Falls. By 9am we were to the parking area of the Virgin Falls Pocket Wilderness, I was mildly discouraged to see the parking lot nearly full with around 14 cars ahead of us. I had read it was a popular camping destination so I suspected we may pass some overnight hikers leaving on our way in. Steve was in charge of carrying the backpack with our food, water, and first-aid gear and I had my camera and more water. The hike is an 8 mile round trip hike that descends the entire trail until reaching the main Falls. A sign at the trail head cautions you of the distance and the fact that recently people have got lost along the way. I found this to be exciting and added to the thrill of the hike.
|clear swimming hole|
The first mile or so of the hike is relatively flat with only a mild descent, each step of easy hiking was a welcome one considering our first day had us on our feet for over 10 miles of tough hiking. After just over a mile, we picked up a stream that was nearly completely dry, as we climbed down the hill where Big Branch Falls was supposed to be cascading over a 25ft drop we were greeted with a rock wall. I wasn't surprised nor extremely disappointed because I knew it had a low watershed. We continued on another mile and really started to descend steeply picking up another stream with significantly more water, as we came around some boulders I stepped in a yellow jackets nest and got a few stings on the leg, I hurried away and down the hill catching the first glimpse of Big Laurel Falls. Although it was barely flowing as well, the massive cave behind it had my attention and I was impressed! Once we caught the creek bed we hiked back to the cave and explored it thoroughly, it was as wide as a football field and nearly as deep. The amazing thing here is that the falls drain backwards underneath itself and drops into a cave below the back of the cave we were standing in. Steve had brought a flashlight and we could see a long way into the small opening the water was draining in and the soft ground beneath my feet made me nervous we could break through at any time. The flash on my camera was not powerful enough to fire in the dark cave and I was forced to snap photos with the aid of his flashlight. I soaked my hat under the falls to cool my head, it was only 1030 and the temperature had to be approaching 90 degrees. Back on the trail the climb leveled slightly and we met several forks in the path that I was unaware of, I knew the main trail was marked with white blazes so we continued on following the small paint spots sporadically placed on the trees. In about another hour we arrived at a four wheeler path with a sign to the left for the Caney Fork River and the right wasn't marked but I knew the falls wasn't on the river. We hiked steadily up hill for about twenty minutes and suddenly I could see Virgin Falls! I was glad to see it but puzzled that I had missed the Sheep Cave and the falls there. Steve could have cared less, something about the falls makes you feel like you have stepped through time, I felt like we were the first person to lay eyes on it. Surprisingly we were the only people there also, we had passed a few people heading out and not passed any other hikers so I'm not sure where the other hikers were. The falls had a nice flow and they empty into a large bowl shaped crater with surprising steepness. Steve and I climbed down to the base and the mist was a welcome break from the smothering heat of the day. He climbed through the falls standing behind them, he suddenly began laughing and frantically waving for me to join him. I put up my gear and took my wallet out of my pocket to keep it dry when I crossed under the water. As I joined Steve on a narrow ledge, I looked down and into the deepest and darkest drop I have ever seen! The falls drain behind itself and have caused a massive cave to form over the years of erosion. I couldn't see the bottom only hear water distantly hitting below. I was really uncomfortable standing on a slick rock so close to certain death and headed back to the safety of the hill side. Steve soon joined me and we decided the hike was well worth it.
|Approaching Big Laurel Falls and cave|
|closing in on the cave|
|dwarfed by the massive cave|
|inside Big Laurel Cave|
|Big Laurel Falls|
Virgin Falls is indeed worth the 8 mile round trip hike if you are a waterfall lover. The hike itself is beautiful following along large rock bluffs, clear blue swimming holes, and distant mountain views. On our hike out I found the first tick attached to my leg of the season, I picked him off and was no worse for the wear. Upon arriving back at Big Laurel Falls we took lunch and rested, the next mile of trail was straight up and through the dreaded yellow jackets. Thankfully, we made it safely through and actually finished the last mile of the hike faster than we completed the first. We said goodbye to Sparta and it's wealth of waterfalls and traveled back to Gatlinburg, TN for some hiking in the Smokies but that would have to wait until day 3, my legs made that decision for me. Until next time...Happy Trails!