Savage Gulf East Trailhead/Savage Ranger Station
DISTANCE: 12 mi (day 1); 9.4 mi (day 2); 9.9 mi (day 3)
TIME: 3 day/2 night trip
If you want a true multi-day wilderness adventure, the trails leading from the Savage Gulf East trailhead can provide it. There are many ways you can thread together an exploration of the eastern half of Savage Gulf, but this itinerary is one good way to explore the territory and enjoy two nights of camping adventure.
The hikes that begin at Savage Gulf East are long but rewarding — so remember to pack plenty of food and water; wear sturdy hiking boots; pack a flashlight or headlamp (just in case); and don’t forget your hiking poles! These hikes are not for beginners; work up to them, if you’re not used to hiking 9-12 miles per day. Many of the other shorter, hikes in Savage Gulf are great for practice!
Day One is an out-and-back exploration of the South Rim Trail, which runs the length of the Savage Creek canyon. So, for your first night, you’ll want to make a reservation to stay at the Savage Station Campground, which is where you’ll return to after the first day’s hike. Be forewarned: All camping requires a reservation, and these sites fill up well in advance. Make your reservation at https://tnstateparks.itinio.com/south-cumberland.
For today’s adventure, from the Savage Gulf East trailhead, begin by hiking about 1-1/4 miles of the Savage Day Loop, out to its junction with the South Rim Trail.
Just after you start out on the South Rim Trail, you’ll cross a cable trail bridge across Savage Creek. About a half mile out, you’ll come to Savage Falls, a compact but beautiful waterfall with a scenic plunge pool. In the springtime, this area is filled with blooming rhododendron.
As you work your way out toward the large end of Savage Creek canyon, there are many beautiful overlooks, at miles 1.3, 1.6, 2.8, 4.0, 4.1, 4.3 and 4.5. Around Mile 3-1/2, look for the site of an old moonshine still, on the left.
Near Mile 6, you’ll arrive at the intersection with the Stagecoach and Collins Rim trails (see April’s adventure for more about these trails). This could be a good time for lunch, before you turn around and retrace your route, back to the Savage Station Campground. Be sure to take a second look at the overlooks; as the sun angle changes during the day, it reveals entirely new vistas and details in the Savage Creek canyon below. Around miles 3 and 4, a good bit of what you’re looking at in the canyon is what’s known as “old growth forest” — areas where the trees have never been harvested for timber; meaning, they’ve grown to their full, mature size. Look around at the trees where you’re standing — most of them are “second growth,” meaning this area has been cut at least once and likely two or three times since the arrival of European settlers in this area, in the 1820s.
Day Two begins an even bigger adventure, taking you to some of the highest points in Savage Gulf. From the campground, begin once again by taking the Savage Day Loop, this time out to the North Rim Trail, and then on to the North Plateau Trail (you’ll explore the rest of the North Rim Trail tomorrow).
About one mile out the North Plateau Trail, you’ll notice a wider, very flat trail bed. This is the remnant of an old narrow-gauge logging railroad grade from the early 1900s, known as the ‘Dinky Line’, which was used to bring huge logs out of areas being timbered at that time.
About 2-1/2 miles out on the North Plateau Trail, you’ll enter an area of outstanding (nearly “old growth”) hardwood forest. You’ll also traverse areas of dense mountain laurel, and cross several old jeep roads. Around Mile 7, you’ll come to the overlook of Coppinger Gulf, one of the more remote canyons in the Savage Gulf area.
Finally, just past the Coppinger overlook, you’ll arrive at Hobbs Cabin and Campground. This cabin belonged to Joe Hobbs, an early settler of Savage Gulf, who lived here over 100 years ago. As you spend the evening here, try to imagine what it must have been like to live here on a daily basis — a challenging, yet beautiful place to call home.
Day Three begins from Hobbs Cabin, but today you’ll return on the North Rim Trail to get a look at the Savage Creek canyon on the side opposite from where you hiked on Day One. You’ll be hiking this trail back toward the trailhead, so the mile markers will “count you down” as you head toward your final destination.
Because you’ll be following the rim of Savage Creek canyon, there will be many small streams and nearly a dozen breathtaking overlooks along the way. About three miles in, you’ll come to the Yellow Bluff Overlook; at 200 feet in height, this is Savage Gulf’s tallest bluff.
Not far past the Yellow Bluff Overlook, you’ll arrive at the intersection with the Mountain Oak Trail, a short (0.8 mile) connector between the North Rim and North Plateau trails. If time permits, explore the Mountain Oak Trail, which has some of the best stands of shortleaf pine in the Savage Gulf area.
Returning to the North Rim Trail, turn left to continue your return to the trailhead. About 4-1/2 miles in, you’ll come to an overlook created by a cliff fall (rockslide) which wiped out everything from plateau top to creek bottom in January of 1984.
A mile beyond the cliff fall are several nice overlooks of Savage and Meadow creeks; and half mile further, you’ll cross the cable trail bridge across Meadow Creek, which ought to look familiar; you crossed it, headed in the opposite direction, yesterday morning.
A quarter mile past the bridge, you’ll once again pick up the Savage Day Loop Trail; you’re about 2 miles from the “finish line”, back at the trailhead kiosk at Savage Gulf East. Congratulations on finishing one of the more challenging adventures in South Cumberland State Park!