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A World of Its Own
Exploring the Fiery Gizzard Trail

Article & Photography by Jared Rigsby

Though it only took us about two hours to drive here from Nashville, TN, the South Cumberland State Park looked like we had travelled to another planet. And a most beautiful, green and alluring planet at that! It was clear that adventures were there to be had, especially by three intrepid explorers like me, and my friends.

Fiery Gizzard TrailAfter a relatively uneventful trip, I finally pulled into our small parking spot in the Foster Falls Parking Lot, where night had already fallen. Although I had been there before, my friends (both of whom were experienced hikers and rock climbers) had no idea what they were in for. We unloaded our backpacks and camping gear, and headed up the steep trail to our campsite. Though our legs were tired from being stuck in a car for the past few hours, and the small rocks that jutted out of the ground were a bit hard to see, we and our stuff, successfully maneuvered the challenging, dark trail, Still, all the trouble was scertainly worth it, once we reached the breathtaking overlook of Foster Falls, where the next day’s trek down the Fiery Gizzard Trail would begin.

Fiery Gizzard Trail OverhangThe Fiery Gizzard Trail is a 12.5 mile path nestled inside the very much larger park. The trail starts next to the Grundy Forest Picnic Shelter and follows along the Fiery Gizzard Creek, which is how it got its name. Hikers can expect challenging terrain as the trail ascends to 500 feet at Raven Point before dipping back down into Laurel Branch Gorge. Sporting massive boulders, waterfalls, caves and stunning views, Backpacker Magazine voted Fiery Gizzard among the top 25 hiking trails in the U.S.

Though, technically, Foster Falls is at the end of the Fiery Gizzard Trail, we had a special reason for starting backwards; we had rock climbing on our minds. The cliffs that line the northern side of the gorge, cut by the Little Gizzard Creek, offer some of the best “sport routes” in the Southeast (meaning they have bolts already drilled into the rock face for climbers to safely clip to).  These sandstone cliffs average 60 feet in height and offer diverse challenges to experienced climbers, making Foster Falls a popular destination for athletes across the U.S.  

Because the climbing at Foster Falls was just too good to pass up, we decided to pick out a camping spot and call it an early night. So, we found a camping area as close to the waterfall as possible, nestled in between towering hemlock trees, and set up camp.

WaterfallCamping here seems like an adventure of its own, almost like exploring a lost world on top of that plateau.  The waterfall far below reminds you that you're actually spending the night up in the sky, well away from civilization. In fact, on a previous climbing trip, I was reminded just how wild this place was, when a little scorpion made its way to our cozy campfire.  Until then, I didn't even know Tennessee had scorpions!  Fortunately, this trip had no such surprises, with our tents easily holding the wildlife at bay.  

After a peaceful night's sleep, we were ready to hit the nearby cliffs for some early morning rock climbing, before setting off down the Fiery Gizzard Trail.  From the Foster Falls trail head, the hike is pretty casual. You do all the climbing from the parking lot to the campsite, then coast across the rim of the plateau.  

Since the park is full of interesting birds, frogs, salamanders and reptiles, I was hoping to catch good shots of the wildlife through this part of the trail, where I could easily fidget with my camera lenses.  You might even run into a mink (a small, otter-like creature that women long ago used to wear as a coat) at one of the many water holes and pools across the trail.  However, catching wildlife with a camera is a gamble at best, especially when you have a lot of ground to cover, and a group of humans with you.

Collins view over the cliff

Though I didn't actually manage to take any pictures of the wildlife I wanted, I did find something else worth capturing. Since the trail features many rocky cliff faces several hundred feet off the ground, the views were stunning to say the least. We took a break just to watch the hawks and turkey vultures glide across the valley below us,  then riding strong thermal currents back into the sky. Anywhere you looked, you could see huge rocky cliffs juttin down into the never-ending forest below. At one point, we came across an abandoned camp built in a small nook in the cliff face. Though this kind of camping isn't allowed in the park, I couldn't help but wonder what that daring person might be like- talk about a daredevil!

The views alone were worth the trip, but we still had plenty more sights to see. After a short hike of less than a mile, we came across Lorel Gorge, which offered an outlook over the gorge we would soon be descending into. The trail in and out of this gorge is a steep climb, no matter which direction you come from.  But after our lofty walk at the beginning of the hike, we were ready to take on the challenge.

We took a moment to rest and eat at the bottom of the gorge known as Laurel Branch, before we began the steep hike out. In a place like this, it's important to bring plenty of food and water- you won't find any vending machines or restaurants here. When you think you've packed enough supplies, pack some more!  It's especially important to be well nourished on a hike like this, because you are definitely going to burn calories

Tail in the forest

After making our way out of Laurel Branch, we really felt like we were in the thick of things. The next few miles would put us at the halfway point of the trek, where we would need to turn back toward camp.  Being a few miles into an old, untouched forest is a unique experience, with towering cliffs, giant boulders, and cascading waterfalls scattered around every turn. We decided to turn around at the old Moonshine Still we saw on the map.

Until I did some research, I had no idea how much historical significance there was to the Fiery Gizzard.  The name itself is even associated with famous explorer Daniel Boone, who supposedly burned his mouth on a hot turkey gizzard and spit it into the Fiery Gizzard creek. If you ask me, however, I think it's more likely to be named after the moonshine made here. In addition, the first half of the trail was constructed during FDR's “New Deal” program by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the area is also home to old coal mines that have since been abandoned.

The descendants of the original land owners are still very much invested in the future of the park. Though much of the land was donated for the park early on, there is still quite a bit of the park that is privately owned.  In 2008, 6200 acres of forest, in and around the park, was almost sold for logging.  Fortunately, conservation groups led by former Governor Phil Bredesen came together to make a plan. Private and government funds were raised by The Conservation Fund, The Land Trust of Tennessee and Friends of the Cumberland, who joined together to save 1½ miles of the Fiery Gizzard and creating conservation easements to prevent development on the property.  Of the 8.1 million dollars needed for such a task, 2 million came from private donations.

Fortunately, this means I will have plenty of time to return and continue to explore this beauteous place. There are natural wonders I've yet to find, such as the giant boulders of the Fruit Bowl and the ever popular Blue Hole swimming area.  

With a little support, the Fiery Gizzard will remain forever a place for adventurers to leave the world behind, and people young and old to reconnect with the wonders of nature. If your craving a Fiery Grizzard adventure of your own, click here for information on camping, directions and trail maps. / Issue 189 - September 2018
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