Two Great TN Hikes – Virgin Falls & Rocky Top

Two Great TN Hikes – Virgin Falls & Rocky Top

A Pair of Terrific Hikes

Virgin Falls and Rocky Top (Thunderhead Mtn.), 5,527 ft.

Virgin Falls – Virgin Falls Trail, 9.0 miles

Rocky Top – Lead Cove Trail, Bote Mt. Trail &

 Appalachian Trail, 12.0 miles

December 29, 2015 & January 10, 2015

Wes Chapman

January 23, 2015

Virgin Falls

Virgin Falls after several days of rain

Near the summit

A snowy path to the summit of Rock Top

Thunderhead Mountain – Rocky Top – is a series of peaks in the ridge of the Smoky Mountains, along the Appalachian Trail, dividing Tennessee and North Carolina. This is a beautiful part of the world, and a part of the Smoky Mountains that is a quiet and lovely alternative to the raucous Gatlinburg area just to the northeast. After enduring Gatlinburg traffic and crowds for 8 hikes on Mt. LeConte last year, we decided to head a little farther south, and try Rocky Top, the eponymous mountain for one of the official state songs of Tennessee.

Despite an adverse weather forecast, Martha and I decided that it was worth a trip over from Nashville, and a night at the Dancing Bear Lodge prior to heading up – weather permitting. The day started out with wind, hail and rain – a bit inauspicious for a 12 mile, 3,500-foot vertical day. Fortunately, the mountain Gods favored our efforts, the rain and wind backed off, and we headed up around 8:00 – just after a weak sunrise here in the western edge of the Eastern Time Zone. The parking area is right on the road to Cades Cove, and was totally deserted when we arrived – but filled up over the course of the day despite the weather.

The mountain has been called Thunderhead – for its notoriously inclement weather – since the early 1800s, when Mr. Spence and his family cleared the land on the top of the ridge for grazing. Given the name and the forecast, I was a little concerned, but figured that we’d go until either we were too wet and miserable or we summited.

We chose the Lead Cove Trail to cut off a couple of miles from the normal route which starts up the Anthony Creek Trail. Like most of the trails here in the Smoky Mountains, the trail is smooth, even and a wonderful alternative to climbing the rock falls and terminal moraines in the White Mountains of NH. In this part of the country you climb through a band of rhododendrons between 3,000 and 4,500 feet – simply beautiful under any circumstances, but spectacular with a dusting of snow.

2016-01-10 09.27.13

Rhododendrons on the Bote Mountain Trail

Rocky Top is a pile of Precambrian sandstone – which erodes easily and actually feels soft underfoot. This area never had any glaciation, which would have leveled this delightful pile of very soft rock. The trail runs right up the ridge, and a stream had cut through the soft sandstone right along the trail.

We hit the Appalachian Trail and turned left toward the summit in a bit of fog, wind and snow. The summit path cuts right through Mr. Spence’s old meadows and runs through a couple of small groves of trees up to Rocky Top.


Spence’s Field

Martha having a drink

Martha taking a drink

Trail near the summit

Appalachian Trail in a grove of small trees

Rocky Top

Rocky Top – not much of a view

This was a classic transition to winter coloration near the summit – green and brown below, shades of white and grey at the summit. I liked it – it felt like winter in the mountains, except no frostbite. It was about 10 degrees at the summit with a little breeze.

While at the summit, I was passed by the only other person that I saw up there – a through hiker on the Trail. He was from Indiana, taking a gap year after high school, had started in July and was only 186 miles from being done. He was charged up and grinning from ear-to-ear through a 6-month beard; almost done and looking forward to starting Ball State in the fall. I admit it – I was a little envious.

The path out was fast, and we were back in Nashville in time for an early dinner – a terrific day on a fine and comfortable hill.

Virgin Falls Hike

Big Laurel Falls

Big Laurel Falls

We came to the Virgin Falls Natural-Scientific State Natural Area (their nomenclature – not mine) with our friend Steve, who is a native in the area and last visited the falls while in college at Vanderbilt. In addition to Steve, the hiking team on this warm December day included daughter Emily, Martha, and our 1-year-old poodle, Penny.

Virgin Falls is part of an 1,100-acre preserve, located on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau. This area has some steep topography, and the Karst geomorphic land forms are spectacular. There are three noteworthy falls in the preserve, Virgin, Sheep Cave and Big Laurel. The largest, Virgin Falls, comes out of a cave in the side of the ravine, falls 110 feet, and then promptly goes back underground, to emerge downhill in the Caney Fork River.

The gorge that creates the falls is 900 feet deep, so the hike involves a lot of up and down. The Cumberland Plateau is topped with a hard and impervious bed of sandstone. The limestone that underlies it is much more prone to erosion, particularly chemical erosion by acidic waters. Where the water cuts through the sandstone, it erodes the soft limestone rapidly, creating steep sided gorges, caves and massive underground drainages. This is very cool country, and the scenery is spectacular.

Sheep Cave Falls

Sheep Cave Falls


Penny, Emily, Martha & me at Virgin Falls

Penny turned out to be not much of a water dog – I had to carry her across several of the streams. Maybe she will excel at upland birds, because I’m not seeing this one as a retriever.

Big Virgin Falls Map

Virgin Falls map

The hiking is really fast in this area, and we were around the loop and out in about 4 hours. This is a great hike with easy access from Nashville, and I have to believe that it would be lovely in the summer – with the ability to cool off in the streams along the way. There is not much topography, and anyone in moderately good shape can do this and enjoy it. A word of caution – the falls are inherently dangerous for children and pets, but well worth the walk.

Stream coming down to Big Laurel

Stream near the top of the gorge

Adios from Virgin Falls & Rocky Top

Wes Chapman
Written by Wes Chapman

3 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    January 25, 2016

    Hi Wes,
    Sounds like you had a really good time. As I always said and you always did, “Never let the weather get between you and a good time!” Martha, Emily and Penny are real troopers slogging around in the cold and fog despite no view at the top for a reward!! I never caught a glimpse of Steve. Did he break and run?!! (I am assuming that the nice group picture was taken by Mrs. Baby.) By the way I think that I need to remind you not to play too hard with your toys lest you break them.

    Keep up the good work and continue climbing and claiming peaks for us down there!
    Say “hi” to everyone and take care of yourself!


  2. Avatar
    January 25, 2016

    What a great review, once again. Martha is ageless, Emily is beautiful & apparently very strong to hold up Penny and you have nice hair. I love you. xo sooz


  3. Avatar
    April 22, 2017

    I loved hiking Virgin Falls. The waterfall was one of the tallest around and there was an overlook at Martha’s Pretty Point.