Virgin Falls Trail :: Virgin Falls State Natural Area

At almost exactly 2 hours away from Nashville, the whole Virgin Falls out-and-back trail clocks in a just about 10 miles.

I honestly forgot how wonderful almost every mile of this hike is; something to see almost the entire time. Y’all know I love a good creek walk and, boy, Big Laurel Creek delivers. It’s such a peaceful walk where you pass by multiple waterfalls, beautiful, lush greenery that remind me of the PNW, and a sweeping add-on view of Scott’s Gulf at Martha’s Pretty Point.

Along the way, you’ll see a few small waterfalls including Big Laurel Falls, Big Branch Falls, and Sheep Cave Falls.

And of course, there is Virgin Falls, the namesake of the trail. The falls are formed by an underground stream that emerges just long enough for its 110 ft. drop, then disappears into another cave at the bottom of the sink it flows into. It’s some kind of geological phenomenon. There’s also a short trail to get to the top of the falls where you can see the cave where the stream comes from.

You should also check out Sheep Cave and the little waterfall that goes along with it. (Please note that all the caves are closed due to White Nose Syndrome. So, please don’t actually enter the caves.)

There are also plenty (four) of backcountry sites which make it a perfect trip for beginner backpackers. So, if you are looking to get in to backpacking and want a really great payoff, this is your trail. The sites range from being beside a waterfall to on top of a bluff, so there’s a lot of choose from. I’ve personally never camped here (all my hikes here have been day hikes), but I think the one atop Martha’s Pretty Point has the best views! Keep in mind that there is no water at this site, though. So, make sure to filter from Big Laurel Creek before you ascend up there.

The sneaky part about this trail is that the way in is a steady downhill, which you really don’t notice until you are on your way back and those miles are a steady uphill. Going in, I barely got my heart rate above a walk, which tricks you into forgetting that this trail goes steadily downhill a majority of the way in. But, you’ll get a nice workout on the way out. Commence much sweating on my part. I definitely felt my quads gain a few inches of muscle (and consequently my jeans fit a little tighter).

Be especially cautious of snakes in the spring and summer months. This area tends to have a lot of rattlesnakes. (It’s not like they are slithering all over everywhere or anything, but I always like to know what I’m walking into!)

On your way out, make the drive to Welch’s Point, just down the road. It’s a great spot to watch the sunset, if you’re so inclined!

Virgin Falls isn’t exactly a secret or anything, but it truly is a must-see on the Cumberland Plateau. Just be prepared for a long day hike or stay for a moderate overnight backpack.

Distance from Nashville: 2 hours

Trailhead: Virgin Falls Trail on Scott’s Gulf Road (small parking area)

Trail: Mostly an out-and-back trail with a small loop near the end accessing Virgin Falls and Sheep Cave

Link to trail map: Virgin Falls Trail Map

Length of Trail: ~10 miles including the trail to Martha’s Pretty Point, allow 5-6 hours

Camping: 4 different backcountry sites at varying points along the trail: Cable Crossing, Martha’s Pretty Point, Caney Fork and Virgin Falls. Martha’s Pretty Point and Virgin Falls are the most popular.

Overview: Multiple waterfalls, gorgeous overlook and a cumulative climb of 1100′.

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A (Failed) Backcountry Camp at First Creek :: Mammoth Cave National Park

[This trip was taken almost 4 years ago and I am just now finally sharing it. 🙈]

I’ve been in Nashville for years and never made it up to Mammoth Cave, so one weekend, we decided to check it out. Why not camp, right? Backcountry camping is free and front country camping is $20+, so we decided to backcountry camp at a site that was the closest to the trailhead. So, when we arrived, we went to the Visitor’s Center and asked for suggestions on a campsite that was an easy hike and close to a trailhead. The national park employee was very unfamiliar with backcountry sites.

Cut to over one hour (the trailhead was 50 minutes driving from the visitor’s center) and multiple ferry rides later. (But, at least the ferries are neat, holding one car at a time and slowly chugging across the river crossings.) Luke and I are hauling FULL 55L backpacking backpacks, gallons jugs of water and a small cooler dressed in jeans and flimsy tennis shoes cursing the living daylights out of our choice to “backcountry“ camp unprepared. (Clearly, we did not pack light for one overnight.) As it turns out, this was a decently challenging and steep hike to the Three Springs Campground and I’m convinced it was longer than the 1.2 miles it was supposed to be. We were miserable and angry and hungry. Not a great combo for hiking.

Upon arrival at the campsite near a less-than-desirable body of water called First Creek Lake (slightly smelly and stagnant), I threw my backpack off onto the ground, ripped the (7 pound, may I add) tent out and angrily jammed the poles together as Luke started prepping our dinner. Of course, we brought our brand new Biolite Campstove AND portable grill add-on (See photo below) which felt like it weighed approximately one ton and took up about half of one backpack. The good news? We did get to grill brats and brussels sprouts in the backcountry. Did we care in the moment? Probably not.

The campsite itself was quiet and secluded, but that’s all it had going for it. It was just a clearing in the woods next to the river, which was pretty low and sad-looking. So, on top of our poor planning, we didn’t get a ‘payoff’ at the campsite.

I’m not sure exactly what we did the rest of the night, but it probably included laughing ourselves to sleep before 9:00pm because we already realized how ridiculous the evening had been. The hike back out the next morning was met with groans, but we had to make the hike out and the one hour drive back to the visitor’s center to go on our cave tour. Being highly claustrophobic, I was less than thrilled to descend to the depths of the earth. But, thankfully, it’s called Mammoth Cave, so I wasn’t feeling the dreaded panic I usually do when enclosed in tight spaces. We did the Domes and Dripstones tour and I thoroughly enjoyed it. We saw dripstone formations like Frozen Niagara and many stalactites and stalagmites. It’s truly stunning how large rooms of the cave are. Sometimes, you forget that you are completely underground, which is just fine with me (see above re: claustrophobia).

We considered staying another night, but why? With a less-than-desirable first night, we decided to head out right after the tour.

So, learn a lesson from us, either commit to the backcountry experience and don’t bring ~50 lbs of gear, or just suck it up and pay for a campsite. Also, it’s ok to have ‘bad’ experiences outdoors because you learn from them and also get to look back and laugh at the situation. And honestly, this is something that we’ll remember forever. So, get out there and make memories, even if they are hilariously miserable in the moment.

Oh, and don’t forget to take one of the cave tours because that’s probably why you went to this national park in the first place.

Below you will find the ONLY photos taken during the entire trip. And, wow, they aren’t great!

One redeeming part of the experience was our fancy and way too heavy Biolite setup (note the jeans and the not-hiking shoes)
Descending underground
Frozen Niagara

Distance from Nashville: 1 hr 30 min

Trailhead: Temple Hill in Mammoth Cave National Park

Campsite: First Creek 2

Trail: Part of First Creek Trail to First Creek Campsite 2 Trail

Link to trail map: Backcountry Map and Guide

Overview: A harder than expected short hike to a less-than-desirable campsite in Mammoth Cave. If you want to backcountry camp here, I would do some research, because we sure didn’t.

South Old Mac and Chimney Top Trails :: Frozen Head State Park

Frozen Head is one of the “coolest” (pun intended) state parks in Tennessee, maybe because it feels so much like a national park. It has lots of trails to explore and plenty of backcountry sites for backpacking.

It’s located right in the foothills of the Appalachians and is named after it’s tallest ‘mountain’, Frozen Head (elev. 3324), because in the winter it’s ‘head’ is often covered in snow.

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 4.50.22 PMview from the top of Frozen Head

I backpacked the South Old Mac trail in to the Tub Spring Campground, which is one of the only backcountry sites with water. The next day, I climbed the lookout tower on top of Frozen Head just a short walk from the campground then hiked the Chimney Top Trail out back to the car. There’s plenty of diverse terrain and elevation changes to keep you interested (and sweaty.)

(Fun side note: when we were hiking the trail, the ‘Barkley Fall Classic’ was going on which is basically where people do this really intense marathon on the trails of Frozen Head. It’s like a million miles with lots of elevation change and the people that do it are crazy.)

It’s a pretty serious hike especially with backpacks on, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. If you are going to make the drive out to this park, I would suggest camping, even if you don’t backpack so you can have enough time to enjoy the trails. It’s fun for a weekend away and a little closer to home, for me, than the Smoky Mountains.


Distance from Nashville: 2hr 30min

Trailhead: Old Mac Trailhead off of Flat Fork Road

Trail: Old Mac, South Old Mac, part of Lookout Tower Trail, Chimney Top trials (see my route in orange below, camp at Tub Springs)

Link to trail map: Frozen Head State Park Trail Map

Length of hike: about 10 miles total with lots of elevation change

Brief overview: A great overnight backpack trip with challenging trails and pretty views.