Grundy Forest, at the northern end of the Fiery Gizzard Trail, is one of the jewels of the South Cumberland State Park. If you’d like to bid farewell to summer by taking in some waterfalls, three with accompanying swimming holes, or you’re hoping to complete the Friends of South Cumberland’s Waterfall Challenge 15, you can reach five falls on one 3.3-mile hike.
The 234-acre Grundy Forest State Natural Area was originally donated by local residents in 1935 for use as a camp for the Civilian Conservation Corps, who built the picnic shelter at the trailhead, and was later operated as Grundy State Forest. The tract contains the very upper reaches of the Fiery Gizzard gorge and the confluence of the Big and Little Fiery Gizzard creeks.
You can begin the hike on either side of the parking area, but I recommend starting on the left, as that’s where the kiosk with maps and sign-in sheets is located. This is also the main Fiery Gizzard Trail. The trail immediately drops sharply to the level of Little Fiery Gizzard Creek. You have now quickly changed from a plateau-top environment to a world of boulders, swift-flowing water, hemlock trees and a diversity of other plant life, and fresh-smelling air.
You’ll soon come to a large bluff overhang known as Cave Spring Rock House, next to which grows a 500-year-old hemlock tree. A short distance farther, you’ll cross a small stream with the 20-foot-high School Branch Falls uphill on the right. Much of the time, it’s more of a trickle than a falls. Shortly past this is Blue Hole Falls, a beautiful 10-foot waterfall with a 7-foot-deep plunge pool.
In another 0.2 miles, you’ll come to an intersection, with the Grundy Forest Day Loop continuing straight ahead while the Fiery Gizzard Trail turns left and crosses a bridge over the creek, then turns right to continue following the creek downstream. Continuing on the Fiery Gizzard Trail, you can soon spot the merger of the Little and Big Fiery Gizzard creeks and pass the impressive Black Canyon Cascade. When in another 0.3 miles the trail passes the Chimney Rocks, a row of five rock towers ranging from 25 to 60 feet tall, you’ll know you’re about to reach the short spur trail on the right, which leads to Sycamore Falls.
This 12-foot falls has a popular swimming hole with it. In wetter times, a small but much higher unnamed falls flows down the rock face on the opposite side.
On the return, upon crossing the bridge, turn left onto the Grundy Forest Day Loop. This route is 0.6 miles farther than the way you came in, but much of it is easier walking. The trail soon comes to the junction of the two creeks, then follows alongside Big Fiery Gizzard Creek for 0.3 miles. Along the way, you’ll pass the Hanes Hole Falls, a modest falls of just a few feet with a less than 6-foot-deep plunge pool.
A short climb takes you back onto the plateau top for the final 0.9 miles, passing just above the aforementioned School Branch Falls as you cross a small footbridge shortly before arriving back at the trailhead.
A longer option
If a 10-plus-mile hike is more to your liking, a recommended option is to continue on from Sycamore Falls to Raven Point via the Dog Hole Trail. You can continue on the Fiery Gizzard Trail in the bottom, with a steep climb up to Raven Point, but that’s a much more strenuous hike.
Leaving Sycamore Falls, continue down the Fiery Gizzard Trail for another 0.2 miles, then turn left onto the Dog Hole Trail-which immediately climbs out of the canyon, passing a dog hole mine (hence the trail’s name) at the base of the bluff, then crossing the pipeline you crossed earlier two more times. Once on top, the Dog Hole Trail follows near the bluff all the way to the trail intersection near Raven Point. Along the way, it passes short spur trails to Yellow Pine Cascade and Werner Point Overlook.
At the intersection, which marks the end of the 2.8-mile Dog Hole Trail, the now-closed Raven Point Campground is on the left. The main Fiery Gizzard Trail comes from the right and continues straight ahead. Turn right to take the trail for 0.5 miles to your destination, the spectacular overlook at Raven Point.
Fiery Gizzard Trail threat
Many Fiery Gizzard hikers may be unaware that much of the trail remains on private property, and without long-term agreements. Currently, the owner of a 34-acre tract the trail passes through just after leaving Raven Point has given notice that his property will be closed to hikers as of Dec. 1. The park’s staff is working to reroute the trail through difficult terrain, and the trail’s future is uncertain for the moment. Learn more about the situation and how you can help here.
Directions and maps
GPS coordinates for the trailhead are 35.251888, -85.747520. Or, from U.S. Highway 41 on the west side of Tracy City, look for the sign for Grundy Forest, then follow the signs for a short distance through two more right turns.
Bob Butters explores nature and the outdoors, primarily in and near the South Cumberland region, and publishes the blog www.Nickajack-Naturalist.com. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.