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A Tennessee Treasure: Piney Falls State Natural Area

By Johnny Molloy • Nov 26, 2017 at 7:30 AM

Looking for a short, late fall weather destination to take your friends and family? Check out Piney Falls State Natural Area. This 2-mile hike is ideal for younger or more inexperienced walkers to see some “gorge-ous” Cumberland Plateau scenery without requiring excessive exertion.

Piney Falls State Natural Area is one of only 14 National Natural Landmarks in Tennessee. Even experienced trekkers can enjoy this jaunt leading to two super scenic waterfalls in the uppermost canyon of Piney Creek, located on a highland escarpment above Spring City, located southwest of Knoxville.

Here an overview of the walk: The first part of the trek follows an old roadbed atop the Plateau, traversing upland hardwoods. Then you reach Piney Creek and a fascinating loop. First, descend to the top of 80-foot Upper Falls, where you peer down a semi-circular outdoor auditorium into which Upper Falls drops, creating a big plunge pool. Walk the edge of the canyon, descending on a rocky break where ropes aid the gorge entry.

Walk to the base of Upper Falls, then under and behind the aquatic torrent, gaining multiple perspectives of this Cumberland Plateau treasure. That is one of the best things of this adventure — you get to walk behind the waterfall. Cruise past boulders and fortress-like canyon walls in evergreens down Piney Creek to reach the spur to 40-foot Lower Falls. Grab a top down view from the edge of this sheer drop before returning to the canyon rim. Take your time and explore while in the bottom of the canyon — where the scenery is at its most magnificent.

Leave Firetower Road on a double track path around a pole gate. Descend slightly amid oaks, hickories and pines. The trail dips in and out of a shallow drainage by a trailside kiosk, heading westerly. Reach a high point after a quarter-mile, then bisect an old powerline right of way. Keep undulating in white pines. The whitewater noise of Piney Creek drifts from below as you head to a narrow peninsula encircled on three sides by the stream.

At .6 mile, reach the loop portion of the hike. Turn right, northbound for the Upper Falls. Drop into the rocky gorge, where pine and mountain laurel gives way to rhododendron. In short order you are atop Upper Falls, looking down into the semicircular stone cathedral created by Piney Creek, cutting through the Cumberlands. If you walk left along the precipitous top of the gorge you can achieve a view of the 80-foot falls as its spills into a large plunge pool. Also, look upstream at Piney Creek — placidly and gently flowing atop sandstone before making its cataclysmic dive in a brawling racket.

Make every step count as you rock hop across Piney Creek, since you are perhaps 15 feet upstream of the falls drop while crossing. If the water is excessively high don't attempt to crossing, the consequences of going over Upper Falls aren't worth it. To see the Lower Falls in extremely high water you could simply backtrack from here then walk to Lower Falls without crossing Piney Creek. However, the main loop crosses Piney Creek and climbs into thickets of mountain laurel atop a sandstone bluff. Cruise the canyon rim to pass a few semi-obscured overlooks of the falls.

Find a break in the canyon rim, where ropes aid your steep but short descent to the base of the canyon wall. Turn left, upstream in an evergreen world of hemlock and rhododendron. The gorge wall rises to your left and you soon come to the base of Upper Falls, where you soak in a straight on perspective of the graceful arc of water before it splatters onto rock, then makes a short slide into its pool. Get your next perspective of the falls by taking the trail behind the cascade under an overhanging rock house. From here, the falls tumble as a raging wall of water following the order of gravity.

Emerge from behind the falls for one last waterfall view from the opposite side of the gorge. Now begin downstream in moisture loving woods of black birch and magnolia. Moss grows on anything not moving. The trail wanders the base of a craggy, sometimes-broken cliff line, where block-like boulders have fallen from its heights to rest astride the trail. Interesting striations in the rock walls beg a closer look. This is a rich wildflower area in spring.

Continue circling around the peninsula as Piney Creek loudly flows below. At 1.2 miles, reach a trail intersection. Take the short but steep spur down to Lower Falls. You are standing atop the 40-foot cataract. Lower Falls is difficult to see in its full glory unless you walk to the edge of the cliff over which it drops. Be careful! There is no access to the base of the falls, which tumbles into its own rock amphitheater.

Unfortunately, trails don't explore the lower part of the Piney Creek canyon in the state natural area. For down there stands a magnificent old growth forest of hemlock, buckeye, basswood and tulip trees. The centerpiece tree of this ancient forest is the white pine, which grow up to 40 inches in diameter and stretch 100 feet into the sky. From the Lower Falls, the loop trail finds a break in the rocky rim, winding its way past small rock houses. At 1.4 miles, you complete the loop portion of the hike. Backtrack to the trailhead.

To get to Piney Falls State Natural Area from the intersection of US 27 and TN 68 in Spring City, Tennessee, take TN 68 north, climbing the Plateau and driving for 5.0 miles to turn left on Firetower Road. Follow Firetower Road for 1.5 miles to a gravel parking area on your right.

For more information, contact Cumberland Mountain State Park, 24 Office Drive, Crossville, TN 38555, (931) 484-6138, www.tnstateparks.com. Or consult my book 50 Hikes on Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau.

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