Doorway to the Deep

Our last few hikes have been sort of on the wimpy side – mostly due to time or weather constraints – so this past weekend I told Chet I wanted to try a more challenging hike and boy did I get what I asked for! We’ve been wanting to get up to the Great Stone Door in South Cumberland State Park Tennessee for a while now.  The description of the Door itself sounds interesting. This quote from a Chattanooga based online newspaper sums it up better than I could.

“One of Savage Gulf State Natural Area’s primary geologic attractions, the Great Stone Door is a 10-foot-wide, over 100-feet-deep crack in the sandstone bluff that rims Big Creek Gulf. Along with Savage Gulf and Collins Gulf, Big Creek Gulf helps form a crow’s foot-shaped maze of canyons, or “gulfs” as they’re known in this part of the country, which drains into the Collins River. The Great Stone Door has been used for centuries as a means for people and animals to get up and down over the bluff. Native Americans used it before the arrival of European settlers. It’s also rumored that bison used it when they inhabited the Cumberland Plateau before the mid-18th century.”

Sounds pretty cool, right? Plus there are lots of hiking trail options in the area and a couple of waterfalls. My mind was made up – we were going. I was leaving my options open about exactly which set of trails we’d hike, but pretty much any loop we could take was going to require 8 or 9 miles of hiking.  I was trying to be back in Huntsville by 4:30 at the latest, and the drive there would take 2 hours so … 2 hours there, 2 hours back, maybe 6 hours of hiking…ugh. That meant I was up at 5:30 so we could get packed up and out of the house by 6:30.  Anybody who knows me knows I must have been pretty motivated to have suggested getting up this early and it was actually my idea. Crazy!

The drive up was uneventful. We worked our way over to Winchester Road, and then drove up through Huntland, TN, then over to Altamont, TN, and from there made our way to the Stone Door Ranger Station. The ranger station itself is set back in the woods off a nice-sized and shady parking lot. There’s a picnic pavilion off to one side in the trees, and beyond that a campground. While we didn’t explore the camping area, I did research a bit and found that campsites are primitive and are $8.00 a night. There are 14 of these at Stone Door Ranger Station. There are also 3 group sites, which cost $45.00 a night and sleep up to 60 people. While these are primitive sites, there are flush toilets right next to the ranger station. It looks like a beautiful spot, and I’m thinking maybe next time we come up this way we should camp out.

Right outside the ranger station, there is a kiosk and sign-in sheet. We signed ourselves in and then went to the left to check out the .3 mile Laurel Falls Loop trail. This leads behind the ranger station and to the falls right below. The trail is easy, with a set of stairs that take you down to the top of the falls. I didn’t see any way to get to the bottom of the falls, but they were pretty to look at from the overlook platform there. We took some pictures of the falls and some of the wildflowers blooming along the creek, then continued on the loop. We noticed a sign that pointed to the “mill site.” Of course we had to check it out, but I have to report that I don’t know if we actually found it. The path led back to the creek, and there were some stone walls and maybe a threshold, but very little remains of any other structures. In any case it isn’t far down the trail so we didn’t waste much time looking for it. We retraced our steps and then climbed back up to the kiosk and took off down the trail towards the famous Stone Door.

 

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The first part of Stone Door trail is a paved ADA accessible trail. The paved part goes about .3 mile to the absolutely stunning Laurel Gulf Overlook. From here, you can clearly see the “crow’s foot shaped maze of canyons” that the nooga.com site described spreading out below you. It is truly impressive. Right after the overlook, the trail turns to dirt but it remains an easy walk with a few wooden footbridges and occasional views off to your left into the canyons. At .7 mile after the overlook we came to an area with lots of signs. One to the right was for Big Creek Rim trail. One straight ahead was for Big Creek Gulf trail, with mileage to a Connector trail and Ranger Falls. Another little sign pointed left and right and said “Overlooks” with “Stone Door” pointing right only below that. We opted to check out the overlook to the left first before we sorted out which way we wanted to go.

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The views from the overlook was in some ways similar to the ones from the first overlook, but since you had no railing in front of you I think it made a bigger impression. You could see the rock bluffs cantilevered over the void to either side of you, which was pretty to look at. Then I realized that I was standing on exactly that sort of thing right were I was – so there was probably air beneath me! Yikes! A hawk circled up above  while we took pictures and marveled at the views.

Now it was decision time – do we go 3.2 miles down Big Creek Rim trail, which was rated easy and would give us views out into the gulf, or 4 miles down Big Creek Gulf trail, which was rated difficult, but would take us past Ranger Falls? It was unclear to us which trail would take us past Stone Door, but the little sign that said “Stone Door” and pointed right looked to me like it was pointed down the Big Creek Rim trail, so we headed that way.  As we walked down this nice shady level trail, however, we started second guessing ourselves. It sure didn’t seem like this way would get us to the Stone Door. Luckily, we had brought along Kelley Roark’s Hiking Tennessee book that had additional details about this hike and it clearly said we should have gone down Big Creek Gulf trail. Oops. We’ll save Big Creek Rim trail for another trip.

34toad

And I’m very glad we didn’t miss it.  From the overlook area, the trail leads down to a slightly lower, but very similar overlook straight ahead, with the top of the Stone Door to the right. Stones have been laid down the floor of the crevasse to form a sort of steep stairway. We both had to watch our step very carefully because some of those stones were pretty narrow!  We had the place all to ourselves and it was easy to imagine what this area looked like when this was Indian territory.

From the bottom of the stairs, the trail started leading down. And down. And down. 800 feet down to be precise. It was steep and it was very rocky in that way that had us picking our way carefully over wobbly rocks. Most places there wasn’t really a footpath, per se, so we’d find a white blaze and then look ahead to find the next one to figure out what to aim for. We did spot a surprising number of wildflowers on this trail, though: wintergreen, spiderwort, daisy fleabane, tickseed, partridge berry – to name a few. After going down in this way for a little less than a mile, we came to a trail junction. To the left was the Connector trail – a 6.7 mile “strenuous” trail leading towards even more rugged sections of the gulf. To the right was the continuation of the Big Creek Gulf trail, with a sign that said the Ranger Falls spur trail was only 1.1 miles away.

At this point in our evolution as hikers, Chet and I feel like a mile is no big deal. Three years ago, we had notes about being worried about a 3 mile trail being too long. Now, 6 miles is normal, 10 is a little long, but doable, and 1 mile is nothing. So in my head, Ranger Falls was close! I have to tell you, that was one of the longest mile-and-a-bit stretches of trail I can remember! It wasn’t as steep as the first mile, but it was just as rocky, only now the rocks were glazed with a layer of moisture and mud that made them slippery as well as wobbly. It was slow, slow going. I got a little over-confident at one point and then slipped, managing  to slam both the top of my foot and my shin into the same rock and ending up in one of my yoga poses – virasana or hero pose. Only I didn’t feel much like a hero at the time. Ouch! No major damage was done and nothing was twisted so I was soon up and going again. Eventually, we came to the trail junction for Ranger Falls, which featured a sad little trail sign fallen over and leaning on rocks. We were both hot and drenched with sweat and the thought of splashing in a waterfall was very appealing so off we headed down the blue blazed spur trail to find the falls.

I should note at this point that though we were following what looked like a creek bed, it was an entirely dry jumble of boulders with no water in sight. At some point upstream, Big Creek disappears under the limestone bluffs and runs underground for several miles. A heavy rain has been known to fill the creek bed up with water, but that wasn’t the case when we were there. The trail to Ranger Falls crosses this creek bed and one other, so I imagine when there’s been a rain that section could be tricky. It was tricky for us for a different reason though. When we reached the creek crossing, we could not see anything to tell us what to aim for on the other side. To the left there looked like something that might have been a trail, straight ahead there was a jumble of rock that might have been a dry feeder creek, and to the right looked like another potential trail. Chet went one way and I went the other to try to sort it out. It turned out to be the section to the right. Once I got across the boulders to the other side I could see a blue blaze on a tree up the trail and almost around a bend. Not easy to spot from the other side, that’s for sure!

The short trail to the falls was a little easier to navigate, though perhaps I only felt that way because even at this distance from the falls, I felt (or imagined I felt) a coolness in the air.  I was dreaming of standing under the cold falls just to cool off! I was a little worried that after trudging all this way, we’d find the falls dry too since there was still no water to be seen in the creek bed we were following, but I needn’t have worried on that account. I’ve seen pictures of this fall with more water, but there was a very satisfying amount of water dropping down over the rocks above into a shallow plunge pool. Where the water goes I’m not sure, but honestly at this point I was less interested in the mystery of the water than I was in soaking up that cool air. It sure did feel great. We ate our lunch on the biggest rock in front of the falls and then Chet scrambled around taking a few pictures while I basked on the rock and enjoyed the sound of the rushing water. I was caught almost napping by a very nice young couple out for a hike with their sweet big black dog Sam. Sam, his male owner and I all picked our way across the very slippery rocks towards the water fall itself. Sam had second thoughts and headed back to the lunch rock, but I went on toward the falls and managed to get myself pretty thoroughly drenched. Boy, did that feel good. Chet was done with his pictures by then, so we left Sam and his family behind and headed back towards Big Creek Gulf trail.

Just before we reached the intersection, we came across a pair of women hikers. We chatted with them a few minutes, gave them pointers about which way the trail was on the other side of the creek bed, and ended up giving them the map we had picked up at the kiosk. We had the same map in our book so we didn’t really need it. Then it was back to the junction to complete the rest of Big Creek Gulf trail. I was thinking that maybe this end of it was less steep than the other end, and therefore easier. I was only partially right. This end of the trail is less steep. But it is therefore relentlessly uphill for longer and at a still fairly steep grade! Probably because we were hot and tired, we miscalculated what mileage we’d need to reach to be at the end of the trail. We were thinking 5. At close to 5 I stopped at a big rock in the trail to get some water and wait for Chet, who had lagged behind a bit to take some pictures I think. When he caught up, we chatted a bit about how we must be close to the top by now, and then proceeded to hike another 2 miles straight uphill! It was seriously the most challenging stretch of trail I’ve been on.

When the sign for the trail to Greeter’s Falls finally appeared ahead, I hooted with joy, and then collapsed at the base of the sign waiting for my heart rate to slow back down, gulping water and gasping for breath. From the Greeter’s Falls trail sign, it’s only about a hundred yards to the Alum Gap campground. This is another primitive campsite that you can reserve through the park. There are 10 smaller sites there, plus at least 1 group site. The good news is, you don’t have to hike Big Creek Gulf trail to get there. The much easier, level Big Creek Rim trail will get you there in only 3.2 miles. At this point, though, even the promise of stunning views along the Rim trail wasn’t tempting enough to make us pass up the slightly shorter, if less scenic, Laurel trail. This 2.9 mile trail is also an easy one, but winds through the woods instead of along the bluffs. At this point in the hike, my knee was twinging from my enforced yoga pose on the rocks, I was tired, I was thirsty and I was literally counting my steps to keep myself moving forward. I remember that we passed a little sign that said “Moonshine Still” but all I noticed were a couple of piles of rocks – no metal still parts were visible. We trudged on through what I’m sure was a beautiful woodsy area until we came to a road crossing. It was the road into the park and we only had to cross it and go a short ways to complete the loop. I couldn’t wait to see the ranger station! As we walked up to the building, who did we meet coming up the trail from Laurel Falls but the women we’d given our map to down on the Ranger Falls spur trail. They had found the falls  with no problems, had a lovely time there and then had just retraced their steps out of the canyon back through the Great Stone Door. They’d beaten us back by quite a lot apparently, because they’d had time to get back and also go check out Laurel Falls. They looked a lot fresher than I felt, for sure. I don’t know if that means we were super slow hikers, or if the route they took back was really that much shorter. Maybe it was some of both.

In the end, our odometer said we’d hiked 9.9 miles. The maps had indicated it should have been closer to 9. We’d somehow added .9 miles  – probably from climbing around the overlooks plus that time we’d walked a little ways down Big Creek Rim trail before we turned around. It felt like a lot more. Our GPS track only credits us with 8.7 miles, but I’m blaming that on the fact that we lost signal several times while down in the gulf. Mileage alone doesn’t really give a good picture of the difficulty of this hike, though. Many people in the Huntsville area have hiked to the Walls of Jericho so here’s a comparison based on the percent grade of these trails: Walls of Jericho, 8.36%; Big Creek Gulf, 12.78%. Despite my grumbling about how hard this hike was (and it was hard, don’t get me wrong!) it was worth it all. This is some incredibly beautiful, if rugged, country and I’m already thinking about another trip up to see it. Only next time, I think I’ll plan to go in cooler weather.

 

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