Hiking the Virgin Falls Trail in Sparta, Tennessee

A tall view of Virgin Falls
Virgin Falls

The small town of Sparta, TN is easily overlooked by the casual traveler. At first, there really doesn’t seem to be much more than a few farms and a lot of trees. However, for those who are willing to look a little deeper for adventure, there lies a hidden gem that holds one of the state’s most captivating hikes. The Virgin Falls State Recreation Area leads to a towering waterfall that flows from one cave high atop a cliff to another deep below the ground. However, this isn’t the only sight worth visiting along its trail. For the avid explorer, it offers so much more.

Setting Out to Virgin Falls

The trail starts off at a fairly small parking lot situated along a gravel road. At first, it’s just like any other trail winding its way through a forest. The first mile or so is pretty uneventful, which is great for my warm-up. Soon after, I spot one of several creeks that give the falls area its natural charm. It runs along the creek for some time, eventually leading to several rocks that are large enough to cross the water without difficulty. Along the other side, the trail continues a little further before I see it descending ahead. As I approach the drop, I can hear the rush of water becoming much louder as the creek and ground begin to open up to my left.

Virgin Falls Trail Sight 1: Big Branch Falls

As the trail descends, it begins to reveal the first of many waterfalls. A sign marks it “Big Branch Falls”, and though it doesn’t quite live up to its name, it’s still a site to behold. The creek trickles down some cascading rocks into the pool below. A cavern opens up next to it, offering a great place for hikers to rest and cool off for a bit.

Big Branch Falls, the first waterfall found along the trail to Virgin Falls

Past Big Branch Falls, the trail once again continues parallel to the creek. Further ahead, it features several mini falls forming pools of water along the way. It’s sunny, and

the water is particularly clear. At times, it features a blue hue, reminding me of popular beach destinations like the Bahamas or Hawaii. The mini waterfalls continue, some more impressive than others, with 1 in particular that actually cuts through the larger rocks at a unique angle.

A mini waterfall on the way to big branch falls.

One of the creek’s many small but captivating waterfalls.

A short distance later, the trail reaches another creek crossing, one that is much longer than the other. The rocks are smaller at this crossing, so a cable hangs from trees overhead to help hikers cross carefully. The trail then traverses through a campsite before ascending higher above the creek to a wall of cascading rocks with small streams of water dripping down the side. The wall is slightly hollowed out, and the dripping water flows underneath. As the trail passes the rock wall, it also descends back down to the creek. At this point, there are two ways down. The first, and most common, is to follow the trail down the hill. The second is to take the tunnel cave that runs next to the hill, which offers the opportunity to squeeze between rocks while climbing down and hoping that a snake does not attack. It winds through the woods for a bit before reaching the next waterfall.

Virgin Falls Sight 2: Big Laurel Falls

Big Laurel Falls pouring over its cavern before reaching the creek

This waterfall is definitely a step up from the last one. It’s much larger, and the trail’s elevation shifts to offer views from above and below. Rocks scatter across the creek Inside the cavern behind Big Laurel Fallsjust under Big Laurel, but they’re small and fairly easy to traverse. As I carefully step closer to the waterfall, I begin to realize that there’s more to see here. The cliff wall opens into a cavern right behind the waterfall. So large, in fact, that the water only covers a portion of the opening. Making my way over, I see there are some rocks that I can step across easily (though carefully) to walk inside.

The cavern is actually quite large and could easily fit an average sized house and lawn. Some of the runoff from the waterfall flows along the left side and circles to the back. While the entrance is mostly rock, the cavern’s floor is covered with soft dirt. I wouldn’t call it mud, but it was definitely more lose than the dirt on the trails. The walls and ceiling feature layers of shifting colors and rock, revealing the cavern’s rich geological history. This experience alone is worth the hike. Of course, it doesn’t end here.

 Big Laurel Falls pouring over the cavern's entrance.

 

Virgin Falls Sight 3: Sheep Cave

When I’m finally able to pull myself away from Big Laurel Falls and its cavern, the trail continues deeper into the woods, revealing more rock formations and even a crevice in the forest’s floor along the way. Eventually, it stops at a sign that marks a split in the trail. To the left, the trail is half a mile. To the right, it’s 8/10ths of a mile, but also marks the way for “Sheep Cave”.  Both directions eventually lead to Virgin Falls, thereby forming a loop.  Naturally, I decided to head right.

The trail continues through the woods, but soon after, the ground to the right drops off into a steep hill, which the trail then wraps around.  Though the thick trees cover most it, I can hear the rush of water far below. The trail turns right up ahead, revealing another large waterfall with a cavern of its own. This cavern, however, has another feature.  At the back, Sheep Cave can be seen, with its own creek feeding the waterfall behind me.  The cave is easily large enough to walk in, so in I go.

Water flows out of Sheep Cave

The entrance to sheep cave.

I understand that everyone is different, but to me, this is easily the best part of the hike thus far. I’m walking through a tunnel that cuts into the mountain’s interior with water flowing along its floor. Large drops of condensation have formed across its roof, but for some reason, they’re not falling. They do, however, shine brilliantly in the light. Cave crickets are perched all along the walls and ceiling throughout.  Not far from the entrance, a smaller cave veers off to the left.

The condensation of the Sheep Cave's ceiling shining brilliantly in the light.

A cave cricket resting in the midst of large condensation drops on Sheep’s Cave ceiling.

The tunnel to the left is a bit small, so I proceed straight ahead instead. Obviously, it’s dark, and the water continues to flow below.  The air becomes colder, but not as much as I would have expected.  In fact, I’m still comfortable in shorts and a T-Shirt.  Again, I know this experience isn’t for everyone, but to me, it’s a chance to explore what is, for all intents and purposes, an underground creek that eventually emerges from the mountainside to form a towering, yet obscure, waterfall. These are the types of moments that define my passion for exploration.

 

Unfortunately, time is limited, and I was only able to explore maybe a quarter of a mile before I had to turn back around. After I emerge, I take another quick look at the waterfall below, then continue to Virgin Falls. The trail is largely uneventful along most of the remaining route, at least beyond what one would already expect to see while trekking through the woods. There was a hole that led to a cave at one point, but it was so narrow and awkwardly formed that I really couldn’t see far into it. The trail eventually leads to the Virgin Falls campsite, set against another group of unique rock formations. From here, Virgin Falls can be heard, and it’s evident that it’s pretty big.

Past the campsite, the trail continues along near the rock wall, where streams of water (some a bit larger than others) are already cascading down the unique shapes and crevices. As I hike further, the falls begin to peer over the leaves of the trees ahead, continuing to grow as I move closer. Soon, the rock wall cuts left, the trees open, and suddenly Virgin Falls comes into full view. It pours from a cave down along the mountainside, falls to a pool below,

 

and then drains into a cavern behind the pool. A hill rises across from Virgin Falls, hollowed out directly in front of it. Plants grow along the hillside, and a trail leads down and across, providing access to the bottom and even behind the falls. After taking a moment, I proceed down.

The trail cuts between the falls and hill.  A strong mist billows along the way, quickly lowering temperatures even with direct exposure to sunlight. The path is easy to traverse at first, but the terrain eventually shifts from dirt to rocks, which are slippery from constant exposure to mist.  Needless to say, extra care must be taken while descending this trail segment.

As I finally reach the bottom, temperatures drop even lower. Smaller streams of water pour around the base of Virgin Falls, which crashes against the rocks beneath. Behind the waterfall, the mountainside hollows out to form a cavern. The cavern opens behind Virgin Falls with enough space to walk in. However, doing so requires trekking over slippery rocks which rise roughly 20 feet above the cavern’s floor. From the inside, the rocks furthest from the waterfall are (surprisingly) the slickest and most dangerous. There is a space between them and the rocks on the left, which themselves are situated behind the rocks directly under Virgin Falls. The gap between the rows are large enough to fall through, and doing so would send a poor hiker bouncing off of some sharp rock edges before landing into the churning current below, which crashes against the cavern’s walls before eventually draining into an underground cave (in other words, certain death). Beyond the aforementioned outermost rocks, the cavern opens back about 30 feet before reaching the back wall. Needless to say, the stone formations here are both exquisite and terrifying. The rigid, uneven shapes reveal the unique long-term relationship between water and rock. The range of colors show the different types of stone and algae adorning the cavern. The middle-back of the cavern wall juts inward, partially dividing the cavern into 2 segments.  Unfortunately, the constant rush of mist would have drenched my camera had I taken it out, so I could not get pictures (I’ll be better prepared next time).

While I was willing and eager to explore the area behind Virgin Falls, the extreme potential for danger prevents me from recommending it to others. Also, the temperature falls even lower, so much so that my limbs began to feel numb after a fairly short period. This is an easy place to die, and it wouldn’t be a quick or painless death. It was an exhilarating experience to stand in the dangerous cavern, surrounded by sharp rocks, deep drops, and the rush of mist billowing from the bottom of the waterfall. However, visitors must honestly assess the risk and their own skill level. It is certainly not for everyone.

Normally, I find it difficult to leave when struck with awe by nature’s beauty. But, with limbs going numb in a slippery death trap, it’s actually pretty easy to pull myself from the awesome cavern and back to the trail. By the time

A tall view of Virgin Falls

Virgin Falls

I return to the campsite, all feeling has returned. Since I took the longer route down here, I decide to take the shorter one back. Though a shorter distance, the half-mile portion of the loop is actually much more rugged. The terrain is steeper than its counterpart, and there are more rocks to step over. Needless to say, if you’re seeking a challenge, it wouldn’t necessarily pay to take the longer way out, as the 0.8 mile side is much smoother with a more gradual elevation change.  Once I return to the split, it’s just reverse back to the parking lot.

I will definitely be taking another trip to Virgin Falls in Sparta, TN as soon as reasonably possible.  I definitely want to take more time to explore deeper into that cave.  I also want to take some pictures of the cavern behind the falls.  Given the abundant opportunities to get soaked, I’d prefer my return trip to happen while it’s still warm.  So, be sure to check back to see if I make it.

 

Exploration travel meme set against Big Laurel Falls on the Virgin Falls Trail

A point about travel and exploration that I frequently try to use as motivation.

 

 

 

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