At larger crossing of the creek we got to do a little rock hopping. Notice the cable strung across for when the water is really flowing. I mentioned to Melanie that we should have looked up geocaches for the trail before we left, but I had forgotten our GPSr anyway. About that time eagle-eye Mel happened to spot a cache but we didn’t have a pen. Hopefully the cache owner will accept our photographic proof. 🙂
There is only one kind of crappy map that I could find for the trail, but it wasn’t an issue since the trail is well marked and maintained. Even so, at about lunch time we heard a roaring noise up ahead and noticed that the creek disappeared. We had been on the trail for a while but had we really been moving that quickly? As the trail descended to a nice flat area in front of a large cave, we thought we were there. It reminded me of something out of a movie. There was a cave with a sheet of water dropping down the front of the entrance and disappearing into the cave itself. I had never seen a fall with no creek in front of it. It was really unusual and fascinating – kind of like seeing someone without eyebrows. You know something is different but can’t place it immediately. Before we could pat ourselves on the back, I noticed a sign saying Big Laurel Falls. D’oh! We were only about halfway there. At least it was a great spot for lunch.
After eating we quickly picked up the trail again and continued on, passing a spur for a scenic overlook and another for Sheep Cave Falls. We could see Sheep Cave Falls from the trail and didn’t want to spend any extra time going to explore the cave in the off chance we’d be hiking back in the dark.
Most of the trail is spend descending a gorge but somewhere around this time we reached the bottom, made a sharp u-turn and began ascending the other side. Not too long after this we could hear a thunderous roar and out popped Virgin Falls. It amazed us both how close we had to be to the falls to hear it. It was so quiet on the rest of the hike that this was a dramatic contrast.
Let me tell you that this falls is spectacular and well worth the hike. Even in the fall when leaves are down it is hard to get a completely open view of it but that just makes it even better. The best landscape architects site their buildings to get glimpses and framed views of the subject matter before the big reveal. Mother Nature had a similar thought here. There is a little trail that goes up and behind the falls to the cave that it emerges from. I’m sure that this is a neat place to play in the summer (if you don’t get eaten alive by bugs).
Here we met up with our Ohio buddies again. They had turned off at the scenic overlook and were just catching up with us. Donning headlamps, they we excited to finally entire the cave after a year of waiting. I tried to gently explain that the cave was waist deep in water right now but they could not be deterred. NOTE: I can’t believe that I didn’t get a picture of the creek emerging from the cave before it tumbled over the falls!
The trip back to the car was uneventful except to say this is where this trail earns its “strenuous” title. The first 45 minutes of the last hour of the hike was a continuous uphill climb. It made me wish that we had more money so that we could throw in a couple of gym memberships to mix the Stairmaster and inclined treadmill into our workouts. Tough stuff, my friends.
Oh, and I almost forgot, in the last 15 minutes of the hike, when the trail had leveled off I heard a loud crash and then a heavy thump-thumping off into the woods. I’m certain it was a deer drinking from the creek. I wish I could have seen it.
I ended up drinking my entire 2L of water. Melanie drank half of hers. If I were doing it again, I’d pack more water or be prepared to filter some.
Overall, this is one of my favorite day hikes I’ve ever done. I encourage anyone to do this hike. If you are not in shape, let this be a goal. Just don’t go in the summer.
N 35.83917 W 85.33083 (unverified but matches Google Maps)
Sparta Chamber of Commerce 931-836-3552
Three hours from Huntsville
Six hours for the eight-mile round trip hike (four miles one-way to falls)
Trailhead located at N 35.85414 W 85.28263 (unverified but matches Google Maps)
Late fall to early spring is traditionally the heaviest water flow
PS If you want to have some fun, drop the coordinates into Google Earth and angle down so that the hills get some elevation. This will give you a better idea of how the trip played out.