Savage Gulf North Trailhead/Stone Door
DISTANCE: 4.5 mi (day 1); 7.6 mi (day 2); 5.1 mi (day 3)
TIME: 3 day/2 night trip
This is a great 3-day, 2-night adventure you can enjoy in any of the cooler months, but especially during the peak of Fall colors in early November, or during spring wildflower season in mid-April. It threads together some of the most interesting trails in the northern and central parts of Savage Gulf, and gives you an opportunity to camp at Alum Gap and Sawmill, two of the park’s best back-country campgrounds.
Day One begins with an easy “warm-up” hike, a 1/3-mile loop trail to see Laurel Falls. The trail begins to the right of the Stone Door Ranger Station, and takes you down to an observation deck with a good view of Laurel Falls. From there, the trail takes you above the falls, to the site of Laurel Mill, and brings you back uphill on an historic trail, originally thought to be part of the Chickamauga Trace, a Native American trail, later used by early European settlers in this area.
Back at the Stone Door Ranger Station, you’re ready to set out on a bigger adventure. Take the one-mile Stone Door trail (which is actually paved for the first quarter-mile) all the way out to the Great Stone Door. You’ll explore more in the vicinity of the the Great Stone Door on your way back, near the end of this multi-day adventure.
Atop Stone Door is the junction with the Big Creek Rim Trail, which follows the north rim of Big Creek, one of the three creeks that form the major canyons of the Savage Gulf area. You’ll find several great overlooks, on the left, along the three miles of this scenic trail.
At the end of Big Creek Rim Trail you’ll find the Alum Campground, your destination for this evening. 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.
Day Two begins on the Big Creek Gulf Trail, the “big sister” of the trail you hiked yesterday, which is located in the bottom of Big Creek Gulf. You’ll be hiking this trail back toward the trailhead, so the mile markers will “count you down” as you make your way down the Gulf.
About 1-1/2 miles in, you’ll come to the Big Creek Sink. The bottom of Savage Gulf is honeycombed with caves, springs and other formations common to the limestone layers that line the bottom of the Gulf. Where a stream disappears into one of these fissures is called a “sink”; where it re-emerges from the ground, a “spring” or “seep”. Some of these sinks are large enough to swallow up an entire creek, as you’ll see here, where, particularly at this time of year, Big Creek is completely consumed by this drain in the earth. But not to worry — Big Creek will make a return appearance, further down the canyon.
About two miles in, on the right, you’ll come to the intersection with the Ranger Falls Trail, a half-mile spur that takes you to Ranger Falls and its own “sink”. The dry stream bed of Ranger Creek can flood at times of heavy rainfall, but most of the year, the Ranger Falls Sink swallows up all the water Ranger Falls can offer.
Returning to the Big Creek Gulf trail, turn right and continue for another mile to its intersection with the Connector Trail, which will take you to your Day Two camp at the Sawmill Campsite. Along the way, the Connector Trail has two suspension bridges — the first, a half mile in, crosses Laurel Creek; the second, two miles in, crosses Big Creek.
Two and a half miles in, you’ll come to a short spur trail, on the left, that will take you to the historic Decatur Savage Cabin, where interpretive panels tell the stories of the Savage family, for whom Savage Gulf is named, and other early homesteaders of Savage Gulf.
About a half mile past the Decatur Savage Cabin, the Connector Trail crosses the Collins River via a cable bridge; bear left at the end of the bridge to take the Connector Trail to the Sawmill Campground, where you’ll be spending the night. (Remember to reserve your site in advance!)
Day Three begins with a retrace of yesterday’s journey on the Connector Trail, back to its junction with the Big Creek Gulf Trail. At this junction, however, you’ll turn right, to follow the Big Creek Gulf Trail up to the Great Stone Door, namesake for the most prominent feature in this area of Savage Gulf. You’ll only be on the Big Creek Gulf Trail for about a mile, but the climb up to Stone Door, and then up through the Door itself, is a challenging one. At the top of the Great Stone Door, take time to explore the overlooks and take in the majestic views. In early November, fall colors in Savage Gulf are reaching their peak, and are a beautiful reward for your hard climb.
After enjoying the views, complete your three-day journey by retracing your steps from the first day of your journey, taking the one-mile Stone Door Trail back to the Savage Gulf North trailhead, and the parking area.