Monday, August 10, 2015

Trip Report: Savage Gulf

The GPS quit after leaving camp on day 2 and Matt changed the battery at the falls, so we missed a chunk. Also, it was on recording while we were not hiking, so our speed is crazy slow.  hahaha.  But check out that change in elevation!  That bit is more accurate at least.

With a 5600 foot total climb and drop in elevation, it was like walking miles of flat ground, then climbing a 560 story building and then going back down it.  We only gained/lost around 1000 feet in elevation-much like hiking Walls of Jericho on the AL/TN line.  I think it was a little easier than Jericho because the climb out followed the old stage road that was used between Chattanooga and McMinnville, so the grade was more gentle, but steady.

The named trails in Savage Gulf are ALL blazed white, which I thought might be confusing.  Side trails to springs and overlooks are blazed blue. There are signs at every junction, most blowdowns are cleared (we crossed 4 trees total) and the few cut off trails we even noticed were clearly blocked with debris, making staying on the right trail VERY easy.  The only minor issue I had was going down the Connector Trail from Hobbs Cabin.  The first mile or two is very rocky and sometimes the trail was easy to see as in the rocks were lined up along one side and sometimes it was more faint, and it went uphill MUCH more often than I expected and blazes would be every 30 feet or so and then nothing within eyesight, so we'd try to pick the most obvious way and walk until the next line of trees were in sight and we saw a blaze.  I was off the trail a couple of times, but not very far.  Other than that section, no problems staying on route.

I carried a topo map and a map I picked up at the sign in kiosk.  They both were shredded by day three.  I suggest getting the topo map and laminating it, even without any rain the humidity, my sweaty self and being crammed into my hip pouch were a trifecta of doom for the paper.  I think the mileage on the maps is off by a good bit, but probably not as much as our GPS was saying.

Nia decides if she just lays on Daddy's shoes hard enough, he will give up leaving her at home and be forced to bring her too!

Driving across Guntersville Lake 3-4 times

it goes downhill in this bit

We cross over into Tennessee and get headed to Palmer, which is where I am pretty sure the ranger station is.  Gooooo, planning!

One turn and we found it!  It was not raining any more, but everything was still freshly-wet and the air was cool.  The day had that weird feel that cloudy days sometimes have for me-that time is not passing at all because I can't track the sun.

This is all it takes to camp in the back country right now.  On September 7th, camping will no longer be allowed at Raven's Point or Collins East, you will have to reserve your site ahead of time and it will be $3 per person.  I am glad for the charge, they need some influx.  South Cumberland State Park is HUGE.  There are 55 miles of trail in Savage Gulf alone and that's only one part of the system.

This day we were headed for the North Rim Trail.

Eeep, our first bridge crossing!
But really, the bridge I slid off of (damp wood is SLICK) last year and screwed up my ankle for months was not much higher than this one!  hahaha!

We had around 28 pounds of gear and food and had nearly 3 liters of water on top of that.  

We went the 1.2 mile way so we could see the falls.


I zoomed in as much as my tiny camera could.  Oh.  Falls!

I got these berry flax and pumpkin seed crisps.  The were...hard.

An overlook!

The trail conditions.

This blew down in the storms

Our first suspension bridge.
Matt makes a LOT of disparaging sounds on these, but I loved them!

This one was built to get you over those rhododendron bushes because there wasn't any water to avoid.

tea colored puddles

We saw moving water at the next creek and stopped to top off our water bottles.
We used the UV light the whole trip, I had tablets for backup.


YAY!  On to the North Rim Trail

Common theme of the trip.  WEBS across the trail and I walked into more than 20.  Most I could see and avoid by ducking or whacking it with my pole.

crab spider

The trail undulated between the woods and the rim, back and forth.  It was nice, there was a breeze at the rim and no sun (it finally burned through) in the trees, so we were able to keep fairly cooled off.  It was only around 90.

Ranger station, 5.1 miles away.

Next sign.  4.6 miles away.  HUH?
I think Matt's tired.  He looks kinds of haughty!

Raccoon feather!

Another stagnant creek.
It had rained and hard.  The trail had long washes and there were leaves all over that held little puddles of water.  But it did nothing for the creeks, it was a dry hike after we topped off at Mill Creek.  We were conserving what we had and hoping like mad the spring at the cabin was flowing.

Note to self, wear contacts when it's hot.

The trail to the cabin was tiny after that avenue of the North Rim trail!

The cabin!  We dumped our packs on the table and headed to the spring

It was tiny and low and FULL of frogs.  Matt's trying to decide what all lives in it so we can tell if they are indicators of good water.  Everything was-water striders, water boatmen, crawdads and no mosquito larvae.  We filled back up and headed back up the hill with the water for the night, thankful to have our fill of cold water!

We decided to forgo hot food, it was too hot.  So we snacked for dinner, having tortillas and tuna, cheese and hummus.

We bear bagged our food and set up the tent in the cabin-there were camel crickets in there, plus the bunk beds are about 13 inches wide!  Matt graciously left around 3 to set up his hammock so I could get some sleep.  He does not snore at home, but we can't configure a way to get his head high enough when we camp, short of bringing a pile of pillows.  Or, as it turns out, a hammock!  And he slept well, so it worked out.

Up early, all that water the night before was insisting I get a move on to the privy.

The view from the privy!  :)

Our food.  It's really high, Matt would stand under it and push one bag up with the hiking pole to lower the other bag.  So, 10 feet anyway.

I hauled out the long johns after the heat, I mean Matt, left.

There he is!

It was a little chilly, so I made our hot dinner from the night before for breakfast.  Matt wrote in the log book, I made tea and waited for the pasta to rehydrate.

To make up for the fact that our breakfast had only 7 grams of protein, we opted to eat a meat bar each.  I traded my spicy pepper to Matt for his bacon bar.  It was...not good.  Too many sunflower seeds and the meat texture was crumbly and VERY dry.

We talked out options for the day.  We could drop down into the gulf and cross it, climb back out and set up camp on the opposite rim and hike back out on Sunday or take the North Plateau Trail around to Dinky and camp there, then hike out from there Sunday.
Knowing the water situation where we were and that there was no mention of water at Dinky, we decided to cross the gulf.

The trail did this, A LOT.  See how it's going uphill?

Lots of shifty rocks

Right under the bluff we were on the night before.

More going up.  See the blaze on that tree in the top middle?

Another round of up the hill.  I did not think we were ever going to get to the bottom!

Hiking along in front, I hear a cicada.  I stopped because it was so close.  Then I saw the freaking rattlesnake. It had rattled at me!!!  Look, you will see it too, eventually.
We backed off and discussed our options.  A long rocky (though somehow mostly) downhill hike back up to the rim or try to get around it.
Insanity won again and we climbed up the hill above it around it never moved.

gross fungus.  Looks like dead fingers.

Me, FILLED with adrenaline.

Matt showing off his gnat battle plan-Keep Them Outta My Ears.
I thought I might go insane from the gnats.  They went for my left ear over and over.  I covered it with a headband and I could feel them hitting it, or they would land on my face and try to crawl in under the edge.  I envisioned all kinds of horror in that ear that was attracting  them, UGH

Our lunch view, the bridge over Savage Creek.  Only THEN did we look at the trail guide to see A) the Connector trail is a seemingly endless series of rocky patches and is the hardest trail in the gulf and B) Savage Creek goes underground upstream from the crossing and we were SOL for water.
We had been thinking there would be water at the bottom.  So we sipped at our reserves and vowed to read the WHOLE DESCRIPTION from then on.
North Plateau Trail crosses a jeep trail on a small hill and other than that, it virtually flat.  We decided to stop reading descriptions.

Onward, then upward.
Matt's bladder in his pack was not as full as mine because it's in a pocket that makes it impossible to fill totally-it's too tight, so he was down to his 24 ounce water bottle at this point.  I downed my whole water bottle to stash the bottle in my pack and had 2 liters in my bladder.


GPS said 6 miles by here.  I agree, that was a LONG 3.2 miles.  It took us 4 solid hours to get to the bridge, which on the map was 1.9 miles from Hobbs Cabin.  

Headed to Stageroad Camp, hoping like MAD there's water at the spring.
It was all uphill to the South Rim Trail.

It's the old stagecoach road.  Despite being worn out and worried about water, I really liked this trail!

Look at that work!  LONG rock walls to hold the roadbed in place.  Secondary path with rock walls to move livestock back and forth.

The grade was not toooo hard, it was steady at least.  I have a harder time with hills that have climbs like stairs.  We were eternally grateful we were climbing out on this trail and not the Connector Trail.  Tired as we were, scrabbling over rocks would have been dangerous.

Not far from here, we came upon a small waterfall!
We climbed up to it and sat treating the water and drinking.  I wanted to save the 2 liters I had in case there was no water at the campsite.  So I carried over 8 pounds of just water all the way across the gulf.  Minor accomplishment!
We put electrolyte mix in our last refill and drank that down in case we were flushing our system too much!  Then we topped off and headed to the campsite with a burst of renewed energy that for me lasted EXACTLY until I dropped my pack at camp.

The mile to the campsite from the junction was easy walking with only a few up and over bits where it crossed from Collins Gulf where we came out back over to Savage Gulf.

We dropped our packs and I sort of unrolled my tarp and put it on a mossy bit.  Then I laid down.  I was done.  I dozed off while Matt went looking for the spring that was on the map.
He came back with no luck.
I roused myself long enough to think.  The next campsite and where we KNEW there was water was 6 miles away.  The waterfall was over a mile back.  Matt offered to empty his pack and take all the water holders and fill them up and bring them back.  I was so tired, that seemed INSANE to me.
I decided we came in the far end of the campsite from the ranger station which is the direction 90% of the campers would arrive from.  The spring must be near the other entrance.  Matt headed off that way and found it!

We took our bottles and refilled and topped off his bladder.  I went down with my sleep clothes and a bandanna and did a quick strip and washed off (away from the water!) the sweat from the day.  I wet my hair to cool off my head, it was probably 100 degrees in the canyon all day and HUMID.  Nothing was dry.

In my comfy pants and a fresh bra, I hung a line and put our clothes out to hang (they did not dry overnight either) and Matt ate more tortilla and tuna, my body said, "Go pee and then stop moving or I will do it for you."  I had put the tent up and set up my sleeping area in some fugue state, so I toddled off to the privy and wandered back.  Matt was in his hammock by then and though it was full light, we decided to hang out in our sleeping spots rather than snuggle, so if we fell asleep, we could just stay there.
I thought briefly that he was too close-I would still hear him snore.  Then, I did not care.  I stretched out and tried to relax my achy muscles one by one.

Matt's bearito

The laundry line out my window.

My Note To Self shot.
You are tired, you worried all day about snakes and water, you climbed a long ass hill carrying way too much weight, you have a blister you did not attend to at all.  You did not eat anything after lunch.  You are exhausted and would not have made it to the next water if the spring here was dry.  Are you SURE you are enjoying backpacking?

My last view of the night.  My pad is WAY too narrow for how I sleep, which is sprawled out. My feet are on the floor on each side.  I bought one off another backpacker that is 25 inches wide.  I will crash luxuriously from now on!  If we even tent camp, Matt liked the hammock and I have a hammock to camp in.  We may just do that.


I slept SO HARD.
I got up, beat the spiders away from the privy seat, trotted back to camp and washed my hands then devoured my tortilla and tuna from the night before and we made noodles AND mashed potatoes for breakfast.  We had 2 meal bars each and 2 electrolyte packs each left!

Back at the spring, Matt gets our water, he scooped, I zapped, we drank up and topped off.
We KNEW there was water at Savage Falls, 6 miles away.

The spring was SLUGGISH

Saw this.  WOW

Lots of winding through the trees.  The overlooks were on spur trails on this side, we tried a couple, but there were trees down and we decided to just keep going.

more trees down! I tried to get Matt to climb back over this one so I could get an action shot.  But no.  So here he is landing.  BORING.

Stagnant water at Laurel

Why I Wear Gaiters Even When It's Hot

Matt:150 bug bites
Esther: 10

Today was about bridges.  Wooden, metal, suspension, car.

This guy rode on there until the parking lot.

Savage Falls!  We were giddy with the water, soooooooo much!

3 fish in the above shot.  I tried to swim, they tried to EAT me, I brushed them off with the other foot and they attacked it.  I ran for it.

Ah, a tiny falls! I will just sit here a LONG LONG TIME and be cold and wet. The two states I declare on a regular basis to be the worst possible states to be in.  

hehehehehe!  I finally let Matt have a turn.  See?  COLD

We dumped out any water reserves in the packs, it was less than 2 miles to the car.  Topped off our water bottles and drank them with the last of the electrolyte mix, ate our last bars.  Refilled once more, then I hiked and Matt RAN LIKE A BEAR WAS AFTER HIM to the car.  I saw him twice the whole last mile, he was outta there.

Why I Love My Tall Hiking Pole.
I did this quite often.  Prop and contemplate.  Mostly my own dry death, but still, contemplate.

Suspension bridge!  Only one more landmark.  THE CAR.

Dinky was 3 miles from there.  We could have had a MUCH easier trip, but I am so glad we did the hard route!


the drive home

Matt after I asked if he wanted to go again next weekend

My blister!  I never get blisters, I am careful of my feet.  This bothered me.  I thought it was above where it was, so I had moleskin on my heel AND in my boot and both were in the wrong spot.  I don't even know what rubbed my heel there!

We got back to the car around 2:30.  We drove to the Visitor Center at Monteagle and changed into our street clothes, ditching our wet stuff in the trunk and putting on our camp shoes.

We stopped at Arby's in Huntsville and ATE.  I was so hungry I am not even sure I chewed the first 5 fries.  SO YUMMY.  I had a huge sandwich with piles of sliced turkey and some vegetation.
We refilled our drinks, I thought, "WOW.  Yesterday we were on a hard trail, one that people used to move goods and livestock and themselves the VAST distance of about 50 miles.  That may be as far as they ever went.  And now we can walk 20 feet to a machine that has 10 options JUST for icy cold drinks."

Which is better?  I know which is easier.  And I know I am thankful to live in a time and a place where I can experience both.  Amazing.  Our world is amazing.

Thanks for the hike.


  1. Thanks so much for your post! My partner and I recently moved to Tennessee... we love car camping, but haven't previously had the equipment or access to do anything more backcountry. I look forward to exploring backpacking, but am a total noob, so the thoroughness of your posts is very helpful! Best wishes.

    1. Thanks!
      If you get the chance, check out and look at the South Cumberland posts, there are 4 all together. It's about hiking/camping there with kids, but if you do all 4 sections yourself, you will have hiked every trail in the park! It's got a good overview of that area at least. Also, there's a perimeter trail at the college, Sewanee, that is well worth checking out.