Monday, May 30, 2011

Savage Gulf: Stone Door (Trekking Review)

The South Cumberland and Savage Gulf offer a lot of options for the day trekker or for the serious hiker.  With over 90 miles of trails and perfectly nestled between Nashville and Chattanooga, it's impossible to not consider Savage Gulf when looking for somewhere to go hike.  The trails range from easy to very rugged and the lengths vary from 0.8 miles to 12.5 (one way).

Today we (Funkdubie and I) did a minor trek to Laurel Falls and Stone door.  Laura Falls is so close to the ranger station that it's near impossible to not take the tiny .4 jaunt to see the falls.  While they may be impressive during or after a rain, I was more impressed by the apparent sinkhole/mini-gorge that formed the falls than the falls themselves.  Laurel Falls is a mildly challenging hike at worst, primarily because of the uphill slope on the way back to the ranger's station.  However, the very short duration of the hike easily make's up for the small uphill.

From the ranger station the hike to Stone Door Bluff is about 0.8 miles one way.  The trail is paved for the first quarter mile (to Laurel Overlook) and the remaining trail to the top of the bluff is quite maintained and very easily traversed.  The bluff atop Stone Door offers a stunning view of the surrounding mountains.  Keep in mind that there is no railing around the bluff, so one should keep a very close eye on kids, clumsy people like myself, etc.  Also be sure that no one kicks/throws stones or anything from the top of the bluff as there are often climbers or hikers directly below.  By my opinion, the hike to the Stone Door overlook is considered "easy".

The Stone Door is a really nifty structure with an absolute gem of a past (actually - there's amazing geological history to the region).  The "Door" itself is a 10-foot wide crack in the sandstone rim that surrounds the entire valley and is, pretty much, the only easy way to get to the bottom.  Tennessee State tells us that the 'door' was used by Native Americans as a means to get to hunting grounds. Walking through the seemingly tight expanse of rocks, one can feel the cool breeze and imagine the sounds of eons past.  There are (wild guess) 75 stone steps that lead to the bottom of the door.  The stones felt well placed and poles were not needed. At the bottom of the door, one can traverse down slightly further and then branch out to where the climbers would go.  This section was rugged but very short (I believe there are steps created to go to this area, but a fallen tree made that a non-option).  From the bottom of the bluff, one can feel a new appreciation for the 'do not throw/kick stones' sign above.  The cool air blowing from the pitted areas of the bluff were a welcome feeling mid-day (the day we chose to go - May 30th - was unseasonably warm and hovering around 93-degrees).

As always, what goes downhill eventually has to go back uphill.  We made the trek back up the steps and took another brief glimpse of the expanse of forests. It's worthy to note that while the area has never been logged, the trees don't grow to the grandeur that one may find in, say, Joyce Kilmer park in NC.

Overall the entire trek, including the unplanned trek around the base of the Stone Door Bluff, took no more than 2 hours (and, had we not stopped to bask in the sunlight on the bluff, likely 1-1.5 hours total).  I would rate the Stone Door trail - including the steps to the base - to be 90% easy and 10% moderate.  If you can't handle steps, then skip the aforementioned 10% and just enjoy the beauty of the bluff from atop.

Wildlife:  We saw a very small black snake, typical squirrel, and a very gorgeous copperhead.  We first came across the copperhead after a man coming out of the trail warned us of an "eastern diamondback that was across the trail up ahead".  I snagged my cell phone (camera) and we trekked on.  Not far ahead we discovered the "eastern diamondback" but rather than across the trail, he was nestled just at the corner of a wooden overlook 'pier'.  The other embellishment was that he wasn't an eastern diamondback but, rather, a southern copperhead.  Copperheads have a reputation as an 'aggressive' snake, but most of the time they are really quite docile.  This little guy was maybe 1.5 feet long, so he was a young snake and hadn't found out the hard way that snakes laying on human structures don't usually have happy endings.  So, I gently encouraged him to at least move to the grass next to the structure (he did with zero issue).  On the journey back, I felt an urge to see if he had moved much and found the little guy peacefully wrapped up in a shaft of sunlight that was breaking through the trees.  He was off the path (by a foot, maybe) so hopefully he remained safe.  As for the hiker who said he was a diamondback?...  I hope he learns to ID venomous snakes of regions he's hiking more throughly in the future.  Never bodes well when, if it happened, someone tells the doctors you were bitten by the wrong poisonous snake.  (And how someone mistakes a copperhead for an EASTERN DIAMONDBACK is beyond me... they [copperheads] get more often mistaken for corn snakes and vice versa, but at least those two resemble!)

My point of going to Savage Gulf today was actually to peruse the terrain casually as my next planned hike is the 25 mile (round trip), rugged Fiery Gizzard.  I can't wait to review THAT one!

...Bring On the Fiery Gizzard!  (wow... for some reason that makes me hungry)

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