From exit 135 on I-24 near Monteagle, take U.S. 41 Alt North toward Winchester and Sewanee for 5.6 miles to TN 56. Turn left; take TN 56 South. At 2.2 miles, look for the left turn on Natural Bridge Road to the Sewanee Natural Bridge, and follow the road for half a mile to dead end at the trailhead for the bridge.
The largest natural bridge in the southern section of the Cumberland Plateau occupies Monteagle’s mountainside, just an hour’s drive from Chattanooga. Set within South Cumberland State Park outside of Sewanee, Tenn., the Sewanee Natural Bridge is a 25-foot sandstone arch that offers sweeping views of Lost Cove Canyon.
Lost Cove is a landscape sculpted by water, and the small spring beneath the natural bridge most likely contributed to the erosion that created the arch.
“All of the streams in that area drain down to the bottom of Lost Cove and then go underground, emerging again as Crow Creek through the mouth of Buggytop Cave and then flowing into the Tennessee River,” said Jason Reynolds, South Cumberland Recreation Area park ranger.
The landscape bears witness to a legacy of human use as well. A number of significant archaeological sites have been found within Lost Cove Canyon, although there is no public access to these sites.
Vintage hand-colored postcards of the Sewanee Natural Bridge linger today in the antiques marketplace, attesting to the site’s popularity as a scenic waypoint since the days before the Civil War.
Reynolds has found engravings beneath the arch that date back to the 1880s.
“I looked up some of the names that are carved in the rock, but I couldn’t find any local names,” Reynolds said. “So I think, historically, it has served as a roadside attraction, sort of like it is today.”
Remnants of a “spring catch,” where area residents collected water in the days before municipal water, can also be seen near the base of the natural bridge.
Erosion at the natural bridge is still taking place today and often reveals the discards of visitors from bygone days.
“Whenever we get heavy rain, it disturbs some of the soil underneath the bridge and washes some of the sand away, exposing thick shards of glass from bottles and jars that date back to the days before the state managed the area,” Reynolds said.
The natural bridge is easily accessed by a flight of stairs that leads from a small parking area off Highway 56 in Sewanee. Though there are no trails segmenting off from the natural bridge, the area is a fun stopover point for picnicking and exploring before heading out to hike other sections of the South Cumberland Recreation Area, which preserves 25,000 acres in Grundy, Franklin, Sequatchie and Marion counties.
Popular hikes within the park include Savage Gulf, Stone Door, Grundy Forest, Hawkins Cove, Carter State Natural Area, Foster Falls and Grundy Lake. Another small natural bridge can be found near Ravens Point Campground within the park.
Five miles down the road from the Sewanee Natural Bridge is a two-mile trail (four miles round trip) to the mouth of Lost Cove Cave, AKA Buggytop Cave, one of the Cumberland Plateau’s most impressive cave entrances, which features an 80-foot mouth carved out of a 150-foot cliff.
In the 1960s, archeological artifacts of the Woodland and Mississippian period were excavated from Buggytop Cave by the University of the South in Sewanee.
Currently, Buggytop Cave is closed to the public because of the occurrence of bats with white-nose syndrome in Tennessee. Cave closures are in effect at this and all other state natural areas where caves are located.
Before heading out to the Sewanee Natural Bridge, visit the South Cumberland State Park visitors center in Monteagle, Tenn. For more information, visit http://www.tn.gov/environment/parks/SouthCumberland or call 931-924-2980.
Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist living on Walden’s Ridge, whose writing interests include conservation, outdoor travel and sustainable living. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.