South Cumberland State Park is a backpacker’s paradise and a must-see destination for avid hikers looking for diverse terrain, spectacular views, and the chance to immerse oneself in the landscape surrounding them.
Located within four different counties in Southeastern Tennessee, the park comprises over 30,000 acres in nine separate areas. Hikers and backpackers will find themselves challenged to choose from the variety of routes and backcountry campsites the park has to offer, but will find a rewarding journey no matter where their trail leads.
From the park’s dozens of large waterfalls, stunning cliffs, and natural sandstone arches to the world-famous Fiery Gizzard backpacking trail and over 90 miles of other trails, visitors can get a taste of the diverse ecosystems and landscape characteristic of the Cumberland River Basin. Aside from hiking, the state park also offers some of the region’s best rock climbing and many more opportunities to engage in outdoor recreation through swimming, fishing, hunting, camping, and more.
Hiking and Backpacking
Well-known for its spectacular scenery and diverse terrain, the Fiery Gizzard trail has been rated by Backpacker magazine as one of the Top 25 in the country. On former Cherokee property resided on by Eight Killer, a notorious Cherokee warrior, the trail connects Grundy Forest and Foster Falls through 12.5 miles of scenic terrain that passes through Fiery Gizzard creek, swimming holes, unique rock formations, waterfalls, rocky gorges, dense forest woodlands, and panoramic overlooks.
The trail’s distance and areas of steep elevation gain mark it as a strenuous trek, but one well worth it for equipped backpackers. There are several designated camping spots along the trail, reserved by permit, for those looking to break up the trip overnight. The expansive range of terrain, geological features, and rich history on the Fiery Gizzard trail earn it its iconic status as a bucket list backpacking trail.
There are a variety of shorter day hikes that can be accessed through the Fiery Gizzard trail, including the Grundy Day Loop, Climbers Loop, and Sycamore Falls Loop. These trails are not as long or strenuous as Fiery Gizzard and will provide hikers with similar opportunities to experience some of the notable features on Fiery Gizzard, such as waterfalls, swimming holes, overlooks, and cliffs.
Savage Gulf and Great Stone Door Area
While Fiery Gizzard is undoubtedly the most well-known trail at the park, the Savage Gulf and Great Stone Door area of South Cumberland State Park comprises 55 miles of trails equally as stunning and diverse in their offerings. Hikers can trek to impressive vistas, historical locations of former mining sites, waterfalls and swimming holes, and dramatic views atop high cliffs.
There are many trail routes and combinations of connectors and cutoffs on the trail system in this area, giving visitors the opportunity to choose which landmarks, geological features, and types of hikes they want to do. With the wide variety of trail options, lengths, and difficulties, visitors can keep coming back time and time again to the park to explore.
A few notable hikes of many in the area include the North Rim Trail, Big Creek Gulf Trail and Savage Day Loop Trail. The North Rim Trail is 6.3 miles and offers the greatest number of overlooks in the park, following the edge of the Cumberland Plateau. Big Creek Gulf Trail is a 4 miles long, challenging trail that leads hikers down the gorge past Stone Door. Savage Day Loop Trail is a 4.20 mile trail marked as moderate and follows the plateau to give hikers views of the gulf and Savage Falls.
Check the website to plan your hike before you visit and to explore the variety of routes and their unique features.
Buggy Top Trail
For those looking for a hike and a spelunk, the Buggy Top Trail is a 4 mile roundtrip trail leading to Buggytop Cave, one of the largest cave openings in TN. Visitors can explore this wild cave from May through August and need a permit to do so. It is recommended to get a tour from a park ranger before exploring the cave to best equip oneself with safety and Leave No Trace practices.
South Cumberland State Park offers a variety of options for campers looking to extend their stay at the park while they explore its diverse and expansive offerings. Guests may stay at the Foster Falls campground, which offers 25 rustic campsites and is the only option for car camping at the park. There are also primitive campsites near the Savage Gulf area which are capable of accommodating around 60 people at capacity.
The most abundant source of camping at the park is backcountry camping. There are around 90 designated sites for backpackers along the 90 miles of state park trails, including four camping areas along Fiery Gizzard. Reservations are required for backcountry camping and can be accessed through the website.
South Cumberland State Park is unique in its offering of several climbing options, all very popular among the climbing community in Tennessee and beyond. Climbers can test their skills at the Stone Door, Denny Cove, and Foster Falls areas of the park after registering online. Denny Cove offers over 100 established climbing routes for experienced climbers. While climbs range from 5.8 to 5.14 in difficulty, most of the routes at the cove fall into the upper range of difficulty.
Foster Falls stands out as one of the most popular climbing destinations in the South. With more than 150 established climbing routes, the area has climbing options for novice climbers to expert climbers, with the majority of routes falling into the 5.10-5.12 range.
Fishing and hunting
For outdoors-people looking to engage in hunting or fishing in the area, South Cumberland State Park offers a place to do so. Hunting with a permit is allowed in certain areas of the state park; check the website for more details on allowed and restricted activities related to hunting at the park. Fishing is also permitted in four small lakes at the Grundy Lakes area, where bank and wade fishing yields catches of bass and bream.
Grundy Lakes Day Use Area
The Grundy Lakes Day Use area near Tracy City, TN, provides many activities for those looking to pack a diverse itinerary into their day. Fishing, swimming, hiking, and picnicking are all popular activities at the area and provide a great setting for families looking for a relaxing day outdoors.