Friday, November 1, 2013

Savage Gulf State Natural Area: Savage Day Loop (Blog Hike #446)

Trail: Savage Day Loop Trail
Hike Location: Savage Gulf State Natural Area
Geographic Location: northeast of Monteagle, TN (35.43422, -85.53959)
Length: 4.2 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: October 2013
Overview: A fairly flat hike to a fantastic overlook of Savage Gulf.

Directions to the trailhead: Take I-24 to US 41A (exit 134).  Exit and go east on US 41A.  Drive US 41A 1.1 miles to SR 56 and turn left on SR 56.  Stay on SR 56 as it turns left in Tracy City.  Drive SR 56 an additional 10 miles past Tracy City to SR 108 and turn right on SR 108.  Drive SR 108 7.2 miles to SR 399 and turn left on SR 399.  Drive SR 399 5.1 miles to the ranger station for Savage Gulf State Natural Area on the left.  Turn left and park in the medium-sized parking lot.  The hike begins at the ranger station.

The hike: When most people in the southern United States think of a gulf, the Gulf of Mexico is the first item to come to mind.  Yet a gulf is simply a wide separation into which many streams flow, and the western edge of the Appalachians contain many gulfs.  Unlike the Gulf of Mexico, these gulfs are above sea level.
            One of the Appalachians’ larger gulfs is Savage Gulf, located at the edge of the Cumberland escarpment in southeastern Tennessee.  Before the land became state property, it was purchased by Samuel H. Werner of Tracy City, TN in 1924.  Fortunately for those of us in later generations, Mr. Werner saw the area’s natural value and protected the land in its natural state.  Today the land is officially part of massive South Cumberland State Park.  More specifically, Savage Gulf was declared a Class II Natural Scientific Area in 1973, meaning that development in and near the gulf is very restricted. 
Because of these restrictions, access to the gulf is only possible via rocky and difficult trails, and the area’s remote location ensures that such a trip requires a multi-day backpacking excursion.  For dayhikers, several trails traverse the rim of the gulf, allowing for fantastic views into the chasm.  Perhaps the most popular of these trails is the 4.2 mile Savage Day Loop described here.  This trail gives nice views into the gulf, but it also connects to one of the gulf access trails.  Thus, if you hike this trail in the morning like I did, you will likely share the trail with several backpackers headed for the gulf.
Trailhead: Savage Day Loop
            Only one trail leaves the ranger station, and it is the common entrance trail that feeds all of Savage Gulf’s trails.  Before you head down the trail, be sure to register at the dayhiker kiosk at the trailhead, as required by park rules.  With legalities out of the way, head down the common entrance trail as it heads over some wooden waterbars and short boardwalks, descending slightly.  The first 2 miles of this hike pass through open upland forest that gives no clue that a great gulf is nearby.
            At 0.3 miles, you come to a wooden suspension bridge held up by steel cables.  The bridge shakes rather severely, but persistent forward stepping will get you across.  Some mountain laurel grows along the creek near the bridge.  At 0.8 miles, you pass through an area that has recently felt the chainsaw.  Cut trees lined either side of the trail on my visit.
Wooden suspension bridge
            1 mile into the hike, the trail splits to form its loop.  A large wooden directional sign stands at this intersection.  I chose to hike the loop counterclockwise by turning right here and using the left trail as my return route.
Savage Day Loop splits to form its loop
             The next mile takes you through more of the same nice but unremarkable upland forest as the trail ascends and descends gradually to top a small high area.  At 2 miles, the North Rim Trail exits to the right at another signed trail junction.  The North Rim Trail leads to the trails that enter the gulf, so any backpackers that have accompanied you thus far will turn right here.  To stay on the Savage Day Loop, continue straight.
Another 0.2 mile of downhill hiking brings you to Rattlesnake Point overlook, the highlight of this hike.  From this rocky point, you look down the length of Savage Gulf, the bottom of which lies almost 1000 vertical feet below you.  Some vertical rock cliffs can be seen on either side of the gorge, giving you an appreciation of the gulf’s rugged nature.  This overlook sits near the midpoint of this hike, so take some time to rest here and take in the view.
View into Savage Gulf from Rattlesnake Point
Past the overlook, the trail undulates somewhat with the gulf out of sight to the right.  At 2.7 miles, the blue-blazed spur trail to Savage Falls exits to the right.  The spur trail descends a somewhat steep 0.1 miles to an unprotected overlook of Savage Falls, which is Savage Creek’s entrance into the gulf.  On my visit during the dry season, Savage Falls had the water volume of a garden hose, so plan a visit after a good rain if you want to see the waterfall in full form.
Savage Falls
Back on the main trail, continue your gently undulating course through upland forest.  3 miles into the hike, the South Rim Trail exits to the right.  The South Rim Trail provides another long, difficult route into the gulf, so you need to turn left to stay on the Savage Day Loop.  The trail now joins an old narrow-gage railroad bed, a remnant of the local logging industry, as it climbs gently to close the loop at 3.2 miles.  Continue straight to retrace your steps down the 1 mile entrance trail and complete the hike.

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