For my birthday I wanted a great hike with lots of wildlife and waterfalls. Virgin Falls Natural area in Sparta Tennessee fit the bill. Middle Tennessee is filled with waterfalls. Growing up in west Tennessee I never knew this but now that I live in middle TN I plan to hit as many as possible.
Getting to Virgin Falls is a bit rough in itself. It is on a dirt road with lots of ruts that were hard on my little Mini Cooper. Once at the trailhead, there is an information cabin with a ranger. He was very helpful but also made my day not as enjoyable (I’ll explain later). He pointed out the hard parts and gave us an approximate time it should take to complete the trail. There is supposedly falls at the Sheep Cave near Virgin Falls but we didn’t see any.
There is a 5-mile loop that is at the beginning of the trail that I hear is a pretty nice hike with nice views. But we were here for falls so we bypassed the loop to Martha’s Pretty point and jumped right in. The first 1.5 miles is pretty flat and easy. There are stream crossings, one even provides a cable to assist in crossing. Since we went in winter there was water but not so much that the creeks were overflowing and felt dangerous. The first falls is Big Branch Falls. It’s a nice cascading fall that continues downstream.
This part of the woods is fascinating. There are many large boulders along with many trees and leaves I’ve never seen before. My husband finally figured out that some of the trees were sycamore. But we never figured out the huge leaves that were everywhere. I’ve since researched and the giant leaves belong to an invasive tree called the Empress Tree.
Big Laurel Falls is located at the 2.35-mile mark and right before this is where things get a bit more difficult. To get down to the falls there is a rather steep hill to get down. It was lightly raining so that made the soil stay in place very well while we descended. Big Laurel Falls is a fascinating falls. It, along with Virgin Falls, emerge from underground and immediately return underground after falling. So you can hear the falls long before you see any water. The water falls back into a sinkhole.
At Big Laurel Falls my husband was able to climb behind the falls. He did feel that it wasn’t the safest idea given that if you fall you could fall into the sinkhole. I find it odd that the man at the information booth even seemed to encourage going behind the falls. FYI: the majority of Laurel shrubs are before you reach the falls. There are very few at the falls.
From the Laurel Falls it’s a mild climb to reach the Virgin Falls. It was lightly raining the whole way so we weren’t super curious about our surroundings on the way. There is a loop trail that takes you to the Virgin Falls and the Sheep Cave. We took the quicker route to Virgin Falls and passed the only people we saw all day. It was 3 twentyish looking kids that looked ill-prepared for an 8-mile hike. You can hear Virgin Falls LONG before you see it. Once there it is amazing! I was truly fascinated with the fact it came and quickly went back underground. All this water seems to appear out of nowhere! And then just disappear right away! We stopped here to have a quick lunch. Since it was still raining we weren’t in the mood to sit long.
We walked up to Sheep Cave where the trail ends. I was upset because we had just come up a steep climb that leads to nowhere and nothing really to see.
The walk back to Laurel Falls was uneventful. We took a short break at the Falls before heading back up the hill. There is a cable here that did help on the way down but was necessary for the climb back out. The majority of elevation change is in about a half-mile section right at Big Laurel Falls. There are LOTS of stairs! Once we were back on mostly flat ground, the remainder was easy peasy.
Now here’s why the trail information guy made my day less enjoyable. He stated that is should take about 6 hours to complete but people who regularly hike should only take 5 hours. While this was basic information, my husband took it as a challenge! So he talked the WHOLE trip about beating 5 hours. Once there was just a mile left, he really kicked it into overdrive. We completed it in 4.5 hours, even with stops. I would have taken more and longer breaks if the weather was nice. But since it was winter and raining, there wasn’t much to see but barren trees.
We plan on returning at some point to do the Martha’s Pretty Point loop and maybe the Virgin Falls Trail again. I would love to do it in spring! You can also access Virgin Falls from Lost Creek State Naural Area. I hope to do this trail soon too!
While not for first-timers or those with poor mobility, the Virgin Falls trail is a doable day hike. The variety of trees and boulders makes for interesting scenery.