The Fiery Gizzard
A Great Hike on the Cumberland Plateau
November 28, 2014
The Fiery Gizzard Creek Valley
The Fiery Gizzard Trail
The Fiery Gizzard Trail is 12.5 miles of hiking pleasure along the Fiery Gizzard Creek on the Cumberland Plateau. The trail, which begins in Tracey City Tennessee and runs to Foster Falls, has been rated one of the top 25 hikes in the US by Backpacker magazine. The trail alternates between the river bottom, with some wonderful waterfalls and ancient hemlocks; and the Cumberland Plateau above, affording some terrific views. Most of the trail lies in South Cumberland State Park, which maintains 14 major trails on the Plateau. The portion of the trail which lies next to the Creek is fairly rocky and moderately tough going; the trail on the Plateau is wide, well maintained and a real pleasure to hike.
Martha and I decided that a hike down the Fiery Gizzard Trail would be a great way to burn off some of the excess calories from Thanksgiving, and we were joined by our biking friends, Dawn and Steve, as well as our daughter Mary and their son Seth. The day started with a cloudless sky and temperatures in the mid 20’s – ideal weather for hiking.
Our team hiking through one of the plateau sections
The origins of the Fiery Gizzard name are a little vague, but one story attributes to name to Davey Crockett who killed and roasted a wild turkey next to the creek. Eating the gizzard too quickly, he spat it out, denouncing it as a fiery gizzard – and the name stuck. The second legend attributes the name to a local Indian chief, who threw a turkey gizzard into the creek to emphasize a point during negotiations with Europeans at a peace conference.
There has been logging and minor amounts of coal mining in the area, including an attempt to build a viable coking furnace in the area in 1870’s, which functioned for 3 days before the chimney collapsed and the effort was abandoned. Some of the old works are still visible along the trail. Much of the trail itself was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s.
View down the Fiery Gizzard Creek
The Cumberland Plateau is part of a large and long geological feature that runs along the western side of the Appalachian Mountains from Pennsylvania all the way to Alabama. In Tennessee, the plateau is defined by 350 million year old sandstone/conglomerate capstone. The underlying rock is mostly limestone which is much more susceptible to chemical erosion (particularly acidic water) and tends to erode rapidly where exposed, creating spectacular overhangs and waterfalls. The plateau is 500-800 feet above the surrounding country in most of Tennessee, resulting in steep sided valleys defined by rapid erosion. The sandy capstone tends to be fairly impermeable, and the steep topography promotes rapid drainage, resulting in frequent drought stress for the local vegetation. In periods of normal precipitation, however, the plateau tends to get more than the surrounding countryside, due mainly to adiabatic cooling of moisture laden wind from the Gulf of Mexico.
The Cumberland Plateau is the longest (north to south) hardwood forest in the world, and the steep and deep river valleys in the plateau produce unique micro-climates. As a result the plateau is one of the most bio-diverse places on earth. Many local species of amphibians and fish are geographically unique to the area.
Cumberland & Allegheny Plateau
The trail begins in the excessively named Grundy Forest State Natural Area Picnic Shelter, and descends immediately into the Fiery Gizzard. The initial few miles are beautiful, and marked by waterfalls, caves and a few ancient hemlock trees (over 500 years old). At 1.5 miles (just beyond the Chimney Rocks) we headed up onto the Dog Hole Trail to catch the views from the top.
Chimney Rocks and some really old hemlocks
Views from the Dog Hole Trail
We had lunch at Raven Point (a 1 mile detour), enjoying the great views, before returning to the main trail and heading through the woods to the old still – no longer functioning but fondly remembered I’m sure.
Part of the old still (note pipe coming out the bottom)
Waterfall by the Old Still
The old still marks the half-way point of the trail, and the next couple of miles were mostly just walking through the woods, before we went down into Laurel Gorge for a little bit of fun on some rocks. The Gorge and related stream crossings were only about .25 miles before we climbed back onto the plateau for some fast walking and beautiful views on the way to Foster Falls and the end of our day.
Dawn, Seth and Steve near the end of the Trail
Mary still looking fresh at mile 11
Our route for the day
Martha and Dawn above Laurel Gorge
The trail ends at Foster Falls, which is really quite spectacular and would offer a fine place to swim in warmer weather. The Fiery Gizzard trail is a lot of fun, and offers some terrific scenery – all within 1.5 hours of Nashville. The folks who maintain the trails for the State Park have really done a great job, and we’re looking forward to some more hikes on the Cumberland Plateau this winter.
Adios, from Foster Falls and the Fiery Gizzard