Recently, I undertook what turned out to be a relatively short but quite strenuous hike on a previously unexplored section of the Collins Gulf Trail. Located in the 18,000-acre Savage Gulf State Natural Area, the largest unit of South Cumberland State Park, the approximately 10-mile Collins Gulf Trail is just part of a network of about 55 miles of trails.
The hike started at the Collins West trailhead, located 2.7 miles out 55th Avenue in Gruetli-Laager and about 45 miles northwest of Chattanooga. The first section of trail was familiar territory, having hiked it several times in the past. In a quarter-mile or so of easy hiking, I came to a spur trail on the right, which accesses the Collins West Camp Area. Here, I recommend taking a fairly short detour through the campground to check out the Rocky Point Overlook, with a spacious view of Collins Gulf. But continuing straight on the Collins West Access Trail, I soon passed another spur on the right, which also links to the campground. Shortly after that, the trail drops steeply to just below the bluff line and then intersects with the Collins Gulf Trail. I could hear the rushing waters of Rocky Mountain Creek below at the foot of a precipitous incline.
Here, had I turned left onto the Collins Gulf Trail, after a short distance of hiking much rockier trail, partly under an awe-inspiring overhang, I would have arrived at Suter Falls, another good detour for this hike, or even a possible destination in itself. Note that in winter, the trail may sometimes be closed at this point because of icy conditions. In a 2015 article, I recounted a 5-mile round-trip hike on the Collins Gulf Trail in that direction. But on this hike, I turned right and paralleled the Collins River in the upstream direction.
On a hike to Suter Falls last winter, I explored the trail in this direction for a short distance. It had been a relatively wide and level trail, appearing to be on the bed of an old logging road, leading me to expect this to be a fairly easy hike. But today, soon after passing the point I had turned back before, the trail became much rockier and more difficult, traversing many large rocks that wobbled underfoot. After passing the base of some impressive bluffs, the trail worked its way downhill to a 100-foot-long suspension bridge that crosses the Collins River, at this stage of its journey a relatively small, rushing mountain stream lined with large boulders. The bridge is an approximately 0.9-mile hike from where I joined the Collins Gulf Trail.
After crossing the bridge, look carefully for trail blazes, as what may appear to be the trail climbing steeply uphill is not it. The trail initially follows the stream to the right for a short distance before beginning its climb to the rim. And part of it does seem more like a climb than a hike. In less than 0.4 miles, the trail reaches the rim on the other side and becomes a much more civilized hike through plateau-top forest. At this point, if you’re looking for the Collins East Camp Area, that could be a bit tricky, as it is no longer in operation.
For the next nearly 5 miles, the trail follows closely to the east rim of Collins Gulf until it reaches the junction of the Stagecoach Historic Trail and the South Rim Trail. To continue on from that point, it would be about 10 miles to the Stone Door trailhead or about 7 miles to the Savage Gulf trailhead.
On this hike, I turned around an estimated 0.9 miles after crossing the swinging bridge and ate lunch on a rock that afforded somewhat of a view since the trees had lost their foliage. Then, I retraced my route back to the trailhead, having hiked what I judge to be at least 4.5 miles.
So if you’re up for a rugged but interesting winter hike over a moderate distance, I recommend checking out this section of the Collins Gulf Trail.
Find a good trail map here.
Click here for other South Cumberland State Park maps, including an interactive Savage Gulf cellphone map for 99 cents.
Get directions for the Collins West/Suter Falls trailhead and other South Cumberland trailheads here.
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