The leaves rustle softly as you walk along one of the trails in the South Cumberland State Recreation Area, a group of eight separate park areas connected by highways and hiking trails. Totaling 12,000 acres, the Recreation Area is about 90 miles southeast of Nashville in the unspoiled country on the southern edge of Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, a broad flat-topped ridge 1,000 feet high and 40-55 miles wide that extends from Kentucky to Georgia.
Located in a 100-square-mile area roughly bounded by Altamont, Monteagle and Sewanee, the park headquarters and visitor center are on U.S. 41 between Monteagle and Tracy City; fewer than five miles from the Interstate 24 exit 134 at Monteagle.
There are picnic areas, ball fields, restrooms and a museum in addition to trail information, camping permits and, perhaps most important of all, directions, at the visitor center, which is open seven days a week.
Savage and Primitive
At the northern end of the recreation area, the Savage Gulf State Natural Area includes one of the last known stands of old growth forest in the Eastern United States. Named for an early settler Samuel Savage, this rugged setting contains scenic overlooks, cheer cliffs, three deep canyons or gulfs, waterfalls cascading into plunge basins that make great swimming holes, 55 miles of hiking trails, and 10 primitive campsites.
All hikers and campers should register before beginning one of the trails making up the system that range from short, rewarding and easy to long, challenging outdoor experiences.
The eastern access is the Savage Gulf Ranger Station northeast of the community of Grutli-Laager off state Route 399. The western access is the Stone Door Ranger Station off Highway 56 outside historic Beersheba Springs, a mineral springs resort from the 1800s and home of the Methodist Assembly since the 1940s. The area around the old hotel is the site of the Beersheba Arts and Crafts Show.
The Great Stone Door is the name given to a crevice in the bluff 100 feet deep and 10 feet wide that provides a natural passage into the gorge below that reaches depths of 800 feet in some areas. The sounds of rushing waters reward you after a three-mile round trip hike to Greeter Falls, a two-tiered fall plunging a total of 65 feet. A picnic area and parking are at the trailhead, which begins near Altamont on Highway 56. Other waterfall hikes include the difficult two-mile round-trip Seuter Falls walk and the five-mile Horsepound Falls hike.
Take a Walk
Monteagle is a good headquarters for visiting sites in the southern end of the recreation area including the Fiery Gizzard Trail, one of the most rugged and rewarding trails in Tennessee.
Beginning on the left side of the Grundy Forest Picnic Shelter about two miles north of the visitor center, the Fiery Gizzard Trail encounters a large rock shelter with a giant Hemlock tree outside it estimated to be more than 500 years old along with Blue Hole falls and swimming hole within the first half-mile. After about 3.5 miles, the trail becomes arduous on its way to Raven Point, the site of a spectacular over-look and a campsite.
From Raven Point to the terminus at Foster Falls eight miles away, most of the walking is relatively easy, “running the ridge” along the top of the Cumberland Plateau.
If something a little less challenging is more appealing, try the four-mile round trip Grundy Forest Day Trail. The trail begins to the right of the picnic shelter and passes School Branch waterfall, Hanes Hole Falls and plunge pool and the Cave Spring Rockhouse. For even less exertion, take the 375-foot walk from the Foster Falls parking area off U.S. 41 southwest of Tracy City to the 60-foot falls.
Monteagle is the home of the Monteagle Sunday School Assembly, an inter-denominational church, founded in 1882 and modeled after the Chautauqua Institution at Lake Chautauqua, N.Y. Of hundreds of such assemblies founded in the late 1800s, less than a dozen remain active today.
The Assembly Grounds are on the National Register of Historic Places and most of the lovely old homes are private properties held by long-term leaseholders. Two notable exceptions are the Adams Edgeworth Inn and the North Gate Inn.
An 1896, National Register property, the Adams Edgeworth is a rambling antique-filled structure with 12 guest rooms with private baths. Some have double beds but most have queens and kings. The inn has been updates with central heat and air, but has lost none of its romantic charm.
A wide veranda with lots of wicker invites you to enjoy the sounds of a summer’s evening and the restful rhythms of the front porch swing. After a long day of hiking, a long soak in a clawfoot tub at the Adams Edgeworth turns fatigue into satisfaction. Dinner puts the icing on the cake, so to speak. Diners may enjoy freshly made soups, mixed greens, chicken, lamb, fish, and beef entrees. House guests are served breakfast.
The century-old North Gate Inn, also within the Assembly grounds, has been updated for the comfort of guests, as well. As with the rest of the Assembly, the feeling here is peaceful.
Owners Nancy & Henry Crais are year-round residents of the Assembly, succumbing to its charms more than a decade ago. Seven bright, comfortable guest rooms with queen beds and private baths invite you to leave your cares and city life far behind.
The Monteagle Assembly has an eight-week family-oriented summer session with activities for all ages ranging from playtime, movies and games to lectures, family excursions and concerts.
Daily admittance is charged for gate tickets that entitle one to use all Assembly facilities and attend all programs. Gate tickets are required for all who enter the 100-acre Assembly grounds, including visitors to bed and breakfasts, during the Assembly season, which runs June 9 – August 4 this year.
Across the street from the entrance to the Assembly, the Monteagle Inn Bed and Breakfast, owned by Bob and Carolyn Yates, is the result of significant reconstruction and expansion of a 1940s home. Its 16 suites all have queen or king-sized beds, individual climate controls and private baths. In addition to a living room, library, great room and sitting areas, a private pub is planned for the facility in the near future. Breakfast is served to guests.
Music and More
At Sewanee, the home of the University of the South, the air is filled with the sound of symphony orchestra, chamber music and solo concerts June 22 – July 21 during Sewanee Summer Music Festival, which offers training for musicians and concerts for their audiences.
Founded in 1857 by the Southeastern Episcopal Diocese, the 10,000-acre campus atop the Cumberland Plateau is filled with picturesque buildings of native stone.
A short distance from Sewanee, the southwestern portions of the South Cumberland State Recreation Area include the Natural Bridge State Natural Area, a 27-foot bridge carved by nature from sandstone that’s a short walk from the parking area, Hawkins Cove State Natural Area and Carter State Natural Area, which contains Lost Cove Cave, a cave with a stream running through it and a destination for experienced cavers.
Wonder Cave, a commercial cave on U.S. 41 north of Monteagle at the foot of Monteagle Mountain, still gives tours by lantern-light.
Regardless of what brings you to the South Cumberland, you’ll find it filled with sounds that are soothing and nourishing for the soul.
*Cathy Summerlain and her husband, Vernon, live in Leipers Fork and are the authors of Traveling the Southern Highlands published by Rutledge Hill Press.