On Friday February 9 I took advantage of the beautiful late winter blue sky and warm temperatures and visited the Virgin Falls State Natural Area which lies between Crossville and Sparta, Tennessee. This is one of the most interesting pieces of public land on the western edge of the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee. The Natural Area encompasses more than 1,100 acres of land which mostly lies on the northern valley slope of the Caney Fork River gorge and includes part of the Big Laurel Creek watershed.
The area is geologically interesting with sandstone rimrock bluffs at the upper elevations and kartic limestone in the lower elevations of the valleys host very interesting cave features with surprising streams and waterfall features.
As one starts the hike from the parking area heading toward Caney Fork gorge the trail parallels Big Branch and passes Big Branch Falls which is a little over a mile from the trailhead.
As the trail winds its way down into the Big Laurel Creek valley there is an interesting stream crossing that can be perilous during high water conditions. Fortunately on the day I was there the water was high but not extreme. The cable in the picture below is at shoulder height when you are standing on the big flat rock out in the middle of the stream. By using a trekking pole, a couple of the rocks, and the rotten log it is possible get across with dry feet. There is a designated campsite on the other side of the creek at this point.
After passing the campsite the trail starts descending fairly steeply into the Big Laurel Creek valley. There are stretches of the stream where the water sinks into its bed to flow through cave channels in the underlying bedrock before resurfacing to flow in the rocky channel. There are alternating cascades and blue-green pools through this steep area. At about two miles from the trailhead the trail reaches Big Laurel Falls where the whole creek plunges some 30 feet or so over the lip of a waterfall. The falls tumble onto sandstone boulders and flows back under the bedrock lip of the into a very large grotto where the flow sinks into opening behind a large sand bar. Over the past 10 years or so there have been rock falls of the sandstone grotto roof with loss of over 5 feet of roof thickness on the outer edge of the overhand. Not a place to be when the roof collapses although people have been known to camp in this feature.
There is no stream in the Big Laurel Creek valley downstream of the falls. All the flow travel through cave passages directly to the Caney Fork River. As the trail traverses the valley to the west one option is to pass a sinkhole feature where Sheep Cave emerges from the upper slope. A stream flows out of the mouth of Sheep Cave and tumbles over cascades and vertical drops to disappear into another cave feature which also carries the flow directly to Caney Fork River. During lower flow seasons the cascades below Sheep Cave disappear into small trickles of water.
The next focal point of the day was Virgin Falls itself. The water levels were high enough for the roar of Virgin Falls to be heard a half mile away through the forest and against the softer sound of rapids below on the Caney Fork. Arriving at Virgin Falls I walked to the most popular viewing point and was greeted with a spray of mist and small water droplets carried by the turbulent wind currents caused by the water dropping 110 feet from its source. Virgin Falls is fed by a a cave stream that emerges about 100 feet upstream of the lip of the falls. At the bottom of the falls the water disappears into another cave system that also drains to the Caney Fork.
The chaotic mists made photography challenging while trying to protect the camera and lens from constant drenching. A game of dodging the wind currents ensued.
Exploring above the falls reveals the point of emergence of the cave stream and its short trip to the lip of the falls.
With all the mist swirling around in the Virgin Falls sink there are rainbows in the air on sunny days.
With the winter high flows Virgin Falls is a sight to see from any angle.