There had been messages circulating about getting a group together for a hiking trip to Virgin Falls in Scott's Gulf Canyon along the Caney Fork, on the Cumberland Plateau. Kelli Lewis grabbed the reigns, set a date, and invited all pertinent parties in order to make this an epic adventure.
The Crew at Virgin Falls TrailheadPhoto Credit: Barry Cole
First, the cast and crew.
Kelli "Ginger" and front running trail dog of the year, Ella. Keli is an excellent trail companion and photographer. She usually wields her tripod Big Bertha but borrowed one of my lighter tripods on this trip and I now know why.
Jessica "Pinky" small in stature and quiet but has a huge, bubbly personality and always wears a smile. Her selfies display a confidence and attitude only she could achieve.
Ancil, a Floridian who is a hiking monster. I don't think anything could affect his level headed attitude or ability towards hiking.
Barry & Vikki Cole, like an Almond & Mounds candy bar. One is nuts, the other, not. I'll let you figure it out. I was hoping when Vikki said she hadn't hiked in almost a year I had a chance of not being the "slow poke". Alas, this was not the case.
Daniel (Ninja Trail Guide) & Bones. Daniel spent his return trip accompanying me back to the trailhead. Great trail talk ensued even though I found it hard to gasp for air and talk at the same time.
DJ and faithful companion Daisy who we had just met the day before when she turned up at Cumberland Mountain State Park after realizing she was a day early for the hike. What a ball of fire. I think she had stored up energy for a month prior to the hike.
Thomas "Honey Badger" and John "Hillbilly Gnome", two freak'in mountain goats who never seem to get tired. Both look as though they've been friends since birth and are most adventurous in spirit and health.
The adventure began with everyone meeting at the trailhead, 8:00am sharp. After waiting a bit for the final participant we took a group photo (this was probably a record photo just in case someone went missing or didn't make it out alive), then decided to start down the trail. While stopping at the kiosk to read the posted information and warning signs we heard the sound of a car arriving. Behold the lone holdout, DJ and her dog Daisy.
Off we went like Snow Red (Kelli) and the nine dwarfs. We covered the first mile in about twenty minutes. I think Barry was trying to hurt us before even getting to the strenuous part. After the 1.5 mile mark we started encountering ice. Slipping and sliding along the way with the occasional butt slide (Jessica), our first waterfall was Big Branch Falls. This waterfall reminded me of Stair Step Falls in Graysville, Tennessee. Water making it's way down a trellis type of stairway to the pool at it's base, what a beautiful, peaceful waterfall.
Still making our way precariously along the ice covered trail we came upon some spectacular ice formations where more than one person in our party took a spill. I was prepared for ice as I had donned my Yactrax in the beginning of the trek. These are like car chains for your boots.
Ice FormationApple iPhone 6 Plus: 4.15mm f/2.2: ISO: 40 1/30 @ f//2.2
After a mile or so of walking on ice, the roaring sound of water crashing down upon rocks filled the air. Up ahead was a bend in the trail. I very much expected to be face to face, looking directly at a large waterfall but instead found Big Laurel Falls to be 100 feet or more below me and 900 feet away. We needed to do some rock hopping, scrambling to get down this portion of the trail (where was my rope). As you can see from the picture, I'm in the green shirt up top and have yet to start my descent. Did I tell you I had knee surgery less than a month ago?
Photo Credit: ???
Big Laurel Falls is quite impressive. The waterfall spills 40' over the edge then turns 180 degrees and runs backwards into the limestone cave behind the falls. The river then continues to Sheep Cave Falls. I found a nice vantage point from which I captured this nicely framed image of the waterfall.
Here's a group shot at Big Laurel Falls. I figured we took this before anyone was too tired to stand up straight for a photo.
Big Laurel Falls Group PhotoPhoto Credit: Jessica Whitehorn
Not fatigued yet and moving onward, we hiked through a section of moss covered boulders before arriving at Sheep Cave Falls. Along the way there were numerous downed trees across the trail as if someone was trying to say "none shall pass". Some were mere obstacles, others more like road blocks and took some maneuvering to get through. Good thing Barry has his trusty trail saw. It came in handy on more than one occasion. Sheep Cave Falls isn't very accessible from the main trail and is not entirely visible either, but when you have seasoned (crazy) people like John, Thomas, and Ancil you can bet they aren't going to skip out on a chance, no matter how dangerous it might be, to get the full effect of Mother Nature's essence. Even though I had rope, yes rope, I chose to admire the falls from a safe distance.
The last leg of the trip was easy except for all the trail blockages we had to maneuver through. Walking through the campsite at Virgin Falls the distinct thundering sound of water in the distance became louder with every forward step I took. Louder and louder, the sound was almost deafening and in a moment she was in sight, displaying all her glory. Virgin Falls, I had made it! I think we all breathed a sigh or relief, for we had arrived at our destination.
The water was running better than most had seen on previous trips. The shear power of each drop combining to form torrents of water emerging from one cave only to disappear into another was a spectacular sight and one of natures wonders. There was a study done to discover the origin and destination of the water from Virgin Falls. A dye test was performed in 1974 and did produce results for the output but no water source was found. Although less than satisfactory results were achieved, a new previously unknown cave system was discovered.
After all possible shooting locations had been exhausted by the group, we woke Vikki up from her nap in the hammock, and watched Diane & Daisy, Thomas, and John navigate their way around the top of the waterfall then started the long arduous trek back.
The hike back was a constant uphill battle, drizzle started to pick up and the mist caused by the temperature change began to fill the air. Remembering every step on the way down, I knew what was in store for me on the return trip and felt the anguish set in, but wait, hey Dummy, look where you are. Majestic waterfalls, strewn boulder fields, and mist filling up the valley, a very magical place.
Daniel and I took up the rear, the others slowly becoming more faint in the distance as we continued onward. I welcomed the camaraderie we shared even though I knew he could have ditched me at any point. He didn't and I'm thankful.
I do enjoy hiking by myself at times. Every whisper, leaf falling, twig snapping under my foot, the nearby stream cascading downward, transport me to another place. No cars, telephones, voices (except the ones in my head), or any other man made obstacles to prevent me from gradually falling into my own little world. Then BANG, I'm back at the trailhead. Reality has once again permeated my senses and left but yet another fantastic day of hiking with friends and nature to but a few hundred images mentally and physically.
At the end of it all my FitBit told me I had hiked 14.08 miles and climbed the equivalent of 110 flights of stairs. I can't describe the level of exhaustion I felt nor the cramping I had after my two hour drive back home, but in the end it was the best hike I've been on in the last few years.