Virgin Falls State Natural Area - Hiking

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Virgin Falls Pocket Wilderness is one of the most unusual waterfall hikes (four falls on a 9-mile loop) within driving distance of Chattanooga. Along the way, you'll find subterranean tributaries, a cenote that turns into a high-volume 110 foot falls, a...

Written by

Leif Ramsey


9.0 miles

Destination Distance From Downtown

54.3 miles


3 of 5 diamonds

Time To Complete

5 hours

4 - 6 hours


All Seasons

Dog Friendly




Virgin Falls Pocket Wilderness contains one of the nicest day hikes and short overnight backpacking spots on the entire Cumberland Plateau. Within a 2-hour drive from downtown Chattanooga, this 9-mile hike offers 4 waterfalls, subterranean tributaries, and scenic overlooks. One of the most unusual aspects of the pocket wilderness is its karst features—Virgin Falls being a prime example. Its high-volume tributary bursts out of a cave and flows several hundred feet above ground, before plunging 110 feet. At the base of the falls it immediately disappears back underground. The hike also offers a great cave mouth at Big Laurel Falls, with it's 80 ft ceiling and expansive breadth.

What Makes It Great

Big Laurel Falls section: The trail drops after Big Branch Falls, transitioning from easy to moderate in difficulty. Big Laurel is the first of the major attractions in this pocket wilderness. It comes a bit after the 2-mile point. You approach the falls from the top, wrapping around the gapping mouth of the cave, until you reach the forest floor under which Big Branch Creek flows underground away from the falls. The cave is expansive with 80 ft ceilings and a very wide mouth. Hikers can scrabble over boulders to explore it or even take a shower in the falls.

Virgin Falls Loop section: After Big Laurel Falls the trail continues to undulate, coming to a Y split near the top of a hill. The Y marks the beginning of a loop. We took the left fork which leads to Virgin Falls. Virgin Falls is the most unusual feature of the trip. The trail leads up a dried-up wash to an overlook that's mid-way up the 110 ft high-volume falls. There's decent camp spots for 3-4 tents. From there a short spur leads up to the top of the falls where it appears that a river flows out of a cave from what seems like a geographic high point. It's a strange looking phenomena that makes you wonder if nature is breaking its own rules. The water is frigid, but in the summer the depth is such that the cave looks like it could be explored at least hundreds of feet back with a good headlamp. At this level there's several more tent spots at a ledge. This is the prime camping of the trail and perfect for a short overnight trip.

The remainder of the Virgin Falls Loop leads to Sheep Falls. The trail is fine, but Sheep Falls is laughably small after the previous stops. Leaving Sheep Falls the trail becomes vague. The write-ups say to follow the white blaze, but it's pretty indistinct. There's also a false spur to the left of the falls that leads up an old, overgrown road cut. The spur IS NOT the way back; it leads to unknown woods. It's important to have a good sense of direction here and follow a map.

Who is Going to Love It

If you are looking for a significant distance hike with some great natural features like waterfalls and caves, this is the hike for you!

Directions, Parking, & Regulations

If you're coming up from Chattanooga, Tennessee, your journey is a pleasant one up Highway 27 and then Highway 111. Both are low traffic, well-maintained routes. Highway 111 offers some great scenic countryside of the rural Cumberland Plateau. The trailhead parking lot is well maintained and could fit about 12-15 vehicles. There are no services (trash, water, restrooms) at the trailhead, but it is close by to Sparta, Tennessee. All the camping is no trace, primitive sites. The first sites are about 1.5 miles in.

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Virgin Falls Pocket Wilderness

Scott's Gulf Road
Sparta, TN, 38583
35.854133, -85.282164

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