South Cumberland State Park: Every leaf speaks bliss to me

I just love hiking in the fall, and yes, I know it’s not quite fall yet, but a girl can daydream, right? The crisp air, trees dressed in reds and oranges and yellows as far as the eye can see — well OK, it’s not like I’m going to be hiking in New England so how about we go with just cooler and not-so-humid air and a scattering of gorgeous fall-colored leaves. It’s still lovely. And I can’t wait for it, so I’m going to go back in time to October last year when Chet and I had a wonderful fall hike in the South Cumberland State Park near Tracy City, Tennessee.

South Cumberland State Park is 23,386 acres of land spread over 4 counties in south central Tennessee only an hour and half or so northeast of Huntsville. It’s a bit different from many other state parks that I’ve been to because it is actually 9 separate areas instead of being one big chunk of land. It does make it a little more challenging to find the trailheads I think, but we didn’t really have much trouble so don’t let that scare you off. This area is an absolute delight. It is home to the Fiery Gizzard Trail, which connects Grundy Forest to Foster Falls and was rated by Backpacker magazine as one of the Top 25 trails in the country; the Savage Gulf; the Great Stone Door; Lost Cove; Buggytop Cave; and Sewanee Natural Bridge. Even the names are cool! As an added bonus, right in the center of all this is Tracy City, home of Dutch Maid Bakery and Cafe. This bakery is the oldest family owned bakery in the state of Tennessee and puts out some delicious cookies, pies, breads, salt-rise breads, and cakes. Any time we come up to this area, we stop in to load up on post-hike treats plus some goodies to take home. I highly recommend them.

04savgulfdayloop_suspbridge1Enough about the area, lovely though it is. Time to get to the main attraction – the hike! First up, Savage Day Loop. This hike begins at the hiker’s registration stand to the right of the Savage Gulf Ranger Station on State Hwy 111 near Palmer, TN and is a 4.2 mile loop trail if you hike the whole thing. I had slightly injured my hip hiking the day before and we were in a bit of a time crunch so we choose to just do a shorter out and back hike of 3.2 miles. The first section of trail takes you through a bit of forest and crosses several small branches on stepping stones. At .4 miles, there is the first of a couple of suspension bridges, this one crossing Boyd Branch. Chet was quite impressed with the construction of these suspension bridges. They’re much fancier than the “log over a creek” variety bridge we usually see and high enough that a rising creek would probably not take them out. I see some trail maintenance mega-projects in his future….


After crossing the branch, the trail goes through the forest for  a little more than .5 mile before it comes to the place where the trail splits to form a loop. We went left here, and then in about .25 of a mile we went left again at the intersection with the South Rim Trail. The Loop trail actually continues to the right, but here is where I admit that our goal that day was not really to hike the Savage Day Loop Trail at all, although it sounds like a great hike we’ll have to do soon. We had another plan.

30chetruthsavage_falls_cascadeSouth Rim Trail follows along beside Savage Creek, crossing over it on a footbridge at one point and passing by the site of an old moonshine still. Then in another .25 mile we arrived at a set of cascades. These were beautiful, so we stopped here to admire them for a little while. You might recognize these cascades  – we use a different one of Chet’s pictures of them as our main photo for this blog.

Beautiful as they are, they aren’t the main attraction. Just past the cascades the creek drops 30 feet into a boulder-strewn plunge pool to form Savage Falls. A sturdy set of stairs leads down to the basin where you get a great view of the falls. We had to scramble over rocks and boulders to get to the spot with the best view but it was worth it!



After sitting and soaking up the beauty for a bit, we just retraced our steps back to the car. To see exactly where we went, check out our GPS track here.

32collins_west_trailheadNext we drove to Coalmont, and then headed to Gruetli-Laager (isn’t that a cool name, too?) to the Collins West trailhead. This is still in the Savage Gulf State Natural Area and South Cumberland State Park, but is west and a little south of the Savage Gulf Ranger Station. The parking lot here is a small one and the only trail is the Collins Gulf Connector Trail that takes off next to the kiosk.

35suterfalls_railsThis trail starts out on an old roadbed and is an easy walk at first. At .2 miles, the trail leaves the roadbed and heads off through the woods to the left. The trail after it leaves the roadbed is honestly a little more challenging that I thought it would be. Its only about .5 mile long but there are some steep sections, sometimes with rails to hang on to, and one pretty long rock “staircase” that made my thighs burn!

36suterfalls_cascadesAfter .5 mile, the Collins Gulf Connector Trail meets the Collins Gulf Trail. Here we went left (north) and picked our way through boulders, topped the ridge, then headed down the slope towards Rocky Mountain Creek. Just as the creek comes into view, there is a nice stairstep cascade.

Nice as those are, though, the main attraction is still ahead. The trail passes under, or maybe it’s through, a rock overhang where the ceiling and the floor form a sort of clamshell. At the far end of the overhang Suter Falls drops 30 feet from the top down into the boulders at the base. It’s a beautiful setting, and the reason we picked this short trail. We climbed all around to get good views and pictures of the falls, and I have to say the footing can be a little bit precarious. Unless you’re a much more laid-back parent than I was, I wouldn’t suggest taking young children to this particular waterfall.


We spent quite a while enjoying this unique spot, but then just retraced our steps back to the car. You can check out the GPS track of this trail here.

That was it for South Cumberland State Park and Savage Gulf State Natural Area for that day, but there’s so much to explore here we’ll be back soon I’m sure. For one thing, Chet and I want to hike the famous Fiery Gizzard trail this fall before it’s too late. That trail goes through a section of privately owned land that has recently changed hands. The new owner is planning on closing off access through his property before the end of the year. We’d better get a move on!

Oh and to explain the title of this post, it’s taken from a poem by Emily Bronte called “Fall, leaves, fall,” the first part of which resonated with me:

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.

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