FIERY GIZZARD TRAIL | SOUTH CUMBERLAND PLATEAU | FEBRUARY 26-28, 2016
A 12.5-MILE TENNESSEE HIKE
Grundy Forest State Natural Forest Area to the Foster Falls area.
Seeing how the fall through early spring is my hiking season, my wife allowed me to go on yet another hiking adventure. A week earlier, I had decided to go hiking somewhere and finally landed on, according to Backpacker Magazine & Outside Magazine’s description as one of the “Top 25 Trails In America”…. “The Fiery Gizzard Trail.
This was a South Cumberland State Park trail I had discovered during my typical on-line binge reading sessions for searching out places to hike. The South Cumberland State Park is located within four different Tennessee counties: Grundy, Franklin, Marion and Sequatchie. The park is composed of approximately 25,539 acres in nine separate areas and boasts some of the best hiking in the region. The Fiery Gizzard trail lies within the Cumberland Plateau between the Nashville Basin and the Walden Ridge that stretches into Alabama. The Cumberland Plateau is a deeply dissected plateau, stretching from the northern Kentucky area to its southern terminus Alabama area. This southern portion of the Appalachian Plateau boast spectacular rock formations, sandstone outcroppings, cascading streams, scenic waterfalls, rugged rocky gorges, huge house-size boulders, panoramic overlooks and lush woodlands.
On Friday evening, February 26th, I traveled north to Chattanooga, Tennessee from Birmingham, Alabama to meet up with long-time hiking buddy…Marcus”Easy GO Marco” Handy.
He had moved there 8 months ago for work. I hadn’t seen him in probably a year, so it would be good to catch up with a good friend. I had texted him a few days earlier to see if he wanted to accompany me on this hike and after some schedule re-arrangement on his part, he committed to hike.
“Easy GO Marco” trail name origin – After multiple hikes with Marcus, along with others in our normal hiking party, we discovered he “Hiked His Own Hike…” a very easy, strolling pace despite his long +6ft frame. He was indifferent that he would typically be behind the group sometimes by miles. So…, I started calling him “Easy GO Marco.” Thus he was known from then on with his new trail name. Granted, I typically will shorten down to just “Marco.”
As usual for weekend trips, I finished up my work (….working later than what I had expected), getting to Marco’s apartment around 8pm.
Marco’s crib is right in the middle of scenic downtown Chattanooga, making it a great location to just walk to the lively “Nooga” entertainment district. If you’ve ever been to downtown Chattanooga, you understand the charm of the welcoming stately old structures that have been renovated for dining, shopping, and entertainment in this district.
After sitting and catching up for a while! We decide to walk to the Universal Joint, just a block away for some late evening entertainment and food. The Universal Joint Bar & Restaurant is a converted retro gas station on the corner of Vine Street & Georgia Avenue.
As normal hiking excursion procedure, I got to partake of their version of a Bacon Cheeseburger. However, I did break from the traditional normally prepared fashion to try the Universal Joint Burger….with Cheddar cheese, bacon, Jalapeños and ranch dressing. I will give it a thumbs up…after taking some Zantac for the Jalapeños induced heartburn. It was good…but evil!
We get back to Marco’s crib for some rest as I had planned for us to be on the road early. We had an early morning 30 minute drive to Tracy City, TN to station Marco’s SUV at the hiking trip’s terminus, Foster Falls Trailhead. From there, we had to drive my car to the Grundy Forest State Natural Area Trailhead to start the hike.
We stop, before leaving downtown Chattanooga, for some breakfast at City Café Diner. After carbo-loading up with breakfast delights, we get on the road being behind per my schedule. After getting further behind by getting lost due to my GPS being off, we get to the trailheads for vehicle-staging.
Various vague legends explain how the Little Gizzard Creek and alongside trail, might have gotten its name. One suggests that, while eating a harvested turkey at his creekside camp, Davy Crockett whom frequented the area, burned his tongue on a turkey gizzard and spat it into the gorge. Another holds that an Indian Chief threw a turkey gizzard into a fire to emphasize a point to Europeans at a peace conference. Yet another and most probable describes the 1870 Tennessee Coal & Railroad Company furnace, called “Fiery Gizzard,” that burned for three days, producing “only 15 short tons,” then the stovepipe collapsed. Which ever legend holds the truth, it is fair to be said…”Go with the tale that makes your hike more unique and fun.”
Being extremely behind schedule, Marco and I get on the trail by 9AM and immediately we drop below a bluff to hike along the Little Gizzard Creek. Immediately, the picturesque creek provided picture opportunities that would be injustices for the blood pressure lowering scenery. After hiking the trail for about a quarter of a mile, I’m going over my mental check-list and asked Marco if he had the keys for his SUV. Sure enough, to my not being surprised…, he paused…..and said with a chuckle…”NO… they are in your car.” Wow…, that would have created an issue the next day at his SUV!
I was used to him leaving his articles in my car from past hikes….Glad I had done my typical mental checklist!
Shaking my head, we start back toward the trailhead when I tell Marco to just stay and just I would go back since I was the faster hiker. This would prove to be beneficial as we had 10.5-miles of strenuous trail to negotiate until we were to arrive at our evening’s campsite. After retrieving the keys, I get back to Marco to find him relaxing by the creek. We resume our Creekside trek without any further issues…at that moment.
At 0.7-miles, after passing a very large proclaimed 500-year-old hemlock tree, the 2-mile Grundy Forest Day Loop continued straight while the main trail turned left, crossing a bridge over Little Gizzard Creek that we had hiked beside since dropping in below the bluff just past the trailhead.
We continue to the junction with Big Gizzard Creek and, shortly, the impressive Black Canyon Falls, Chimney Rock, a 20-foot-high rock column, and a short spur trail on the right that leads to scenic Sycamore Falls.
At 1.5-miles, you reach the Dog Hole Trail, which splits off to the left. We continue on the Fiery Gizzard Trail here for 2.2-miles.
This decision is where we start slowing to a very slow pace due to the VERY slick (just ask Marco) creek-side hugging trails, VERY rocky and VERY loose footings.
I’m glad to have traversed it, however next time, I will take the Dog Hole trail that reaches the top with an easier climb, then follows near the top of the bluff on relatively level terrain, reuniting with the Fiery Gizzard Trail in 2.8-miles the next time.
The Fiery Gizzard Trail follows the canyon bottom for another 2.2-miles before beginning a VERY steep climb up the gorge-side near Raven Point. This steep climb offers almost no switch backs at it’s steepest pitch, which I felt was exciting!
Marco on the other hand, felt like his self proclaimed out-of-shape heart was going to explode! The pearl to take from this route…be in-shape and have a lighter pack weight….
Upon reaching the top of the steep arduous climb, a 0.4-mile hike to the right on a spur trail will take you to Raven Point, with a great view of the Fiery Gizzard gorge area this is a GREAT spot for lunch and rest from the aforementioned steeply pitched climb. Here we sit with 3 other younger hikers that had zoomed past us earlier coming up the steep climb. One in the party had thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2015. Naturally, I gravitated to him speaking about the AT. They told us they as well were going to be camping at “Small Wilds” camp area where we had planned to camp. Their reserved campsite was to be right beside our site.
After we had lunch and took in Raven’s Point a little longer, we set out for the next 5.4-miles, we come off of the immediate plateau from Raven’s Point to plunge deeply into Anderson Creek Gorge as the trail is being newly re-routed through the gorge. This re-route offers rock steps, waterfall views, and newly constructed bridges to avoid fording Anderson Creek.
Climbing out of this gorge, even with the strategically-place quarried stone for steps, your heart will receive a good work-out. Upon reaching the top, the trail travels through forested and a gently rolling plateau top, passing near a couple of small waterfalls, streams, a few overlooks and the site of an old moonshine still.
Marco had been struggling with his hiking pace all day due to the strenuous nature of the trail. He had on multiple occasions told me to just hike on and he would eventually catch up. I’m sure this was prompted by my guiding of the trail and given the pace, my prophetic expectation that we would be hiking in the dark if we didn’t speed up the miles per hour. It was at this point when I took him up on the offer to hike ahead….sometimes even hiking I’m sure at a 4mph pace. I felt the trail would simply be level forested terrain until the campsite…
Uh…..I was wrong.
A rugged 200-foot-deep gorge awaited us…Laurel Branch Gorge!
As the evening started to catch me, I traversed the Laurel Branch Gorge, with its large boulders, it offered a very difficult low-light evening hiking due to limited “blazing” in this section. I worried about Marco, but soon came to the rationale that he would probably just stealth came in the forested section probably around the moonshine still if I had my guess, given his pace when I hiked ahead.
After reaching the top, I only had 0.3-miles after emerging from Laurel Branch Gorge to hike before getting to the “Small Wilds” primitive camp area where I had gladly reserved an $18 campsite # 4 the night. I set up my tent and retrieve some water for the night. After completing set up, I take my evening’s meal over to the neighboring campsite (the younger hiker’s from Raven’s Point) and benefit from their already warm campfire. The ask where Marco was…and I tell them I hiked on per his continual promptings. They held out hope that he would eventually stagger into camp with his head-lamp leading the way. I told them, I thought he would probably just stealth camp somewhere along the trail. After I had finished my dinner, I walked back over to my tent as I had forgotten my phone back at the campsite. When I turned it off Airplane mode, I discovered I had 3 text messages from Marco. The first one was, “You there yet?”, the second was “Just crossed the clay road…!”, the next one was “Just passed the bridge and I’m lost!” I reply to him “You are so close…power through.”
I end up calling to tell him I will hike toward him…just look for my headlamp light. I find him about .2-miles from camp as Laurel Branch Gorge had given him out of her rugged terrain. I decide to take his pack to help him out… He said…”Oh my gosh, I feel like I’m floating!”
I was absolutely shocked that he had made it. I told him, my expectations were to not see him in camp until the next morning. He said he got an adrenaline rush and decided to power through! Well done Marco…well done…!
I get him to our campsite and help get his tent set up before we go over to our camp area mates, we had befriended…
We walk over to cheers and sit by the campfire to hear of his adventure.
As we are sitting there without the tree canopy obscuring our view of the night’s starry sky, we walk (minus Marco…he stayed back to nurse himself and the fire…) over to a rocky out-cropping to get a better look at the heavenly bodies.
Shortly after returning from star-gazing, Marco and I retire for the evening into our warm sleeping bags.
On this night, I got to test out my new Goosefeet Gear Down Socks I had gotten for my January birthday. They did exceptionally well!
About 4AM, I decide to put the hot-hands from my sleeping bag into the down socks. I can attest, my feet have NEVER been this warm before. To quote a friend from my Amicalola to Neel Gap AT Hike, “Money well worth spent!”
As the next morning comes upon us, we wake up and break camp getting on the trail well ahead of our camp-area mates. We have around 2.2-miles to make before being at Marco’s SUV that is parked at the Foster Falls Trailhead.
We make good time as Marco is well rested passing Sunday morning day-hikers that were hiking out to the overlooks from the nearest trailhead.
We come upon a clearing that offers us leg-tingling bluff over-looks of Foster Falls and its basin pool.
Foster Falls is a spectacular 60-foot waterfall plunging into a deep pool. Mountain laurel, azaleas and hemlocks growing above the falls, along the sandstone overlook and in the gorge below add to the beauty of this area.
From there the trail wraps around the falls crossing over Little Gizzard Creek that feeds Foster Falls via a metal suspension bridge.
After taking in the opposite side views from earlier on the trail, we make our way to the crowded Foster Falls Trailhead where we had stationed Marco’s SUV just a day earlier.
On the way to my car at Grundy Forest State Natural Area Trailhead, we have that common post-hike hiker’s hunger and happen upon the Dari Delight in Tracy City. Having lunch there, both Marco and I got the bacon cheeseburger and left satisfied.
He got me back to my car where we parted ways. He had a short 30 minute commute back to Chattanooga and I had a 2.5 hour drive south to Birmingham.
On the way home, my thoughts were again the same as it is every time I get to go on a great hike…”I’m glad to be going home to see my wife and children…but WHEN & WHERE is the next epic adventure?”
“I’m IN…let’s go!!!
Once again…as for me…, well… THE MOUNTAINS ARE ALWAYS CALLING BECAUSE IN EVERY WALK WITH NATURE, I KNOW I RECEIVE FAR MORE THAN I SEEK.
Until next time on the trail,