Geologic wonder dedicated as Virgin Falls State Natural Area

Virgin Falls

Authored By Jenni Frankenberg Veal

Water spills out of Virgin Falls Cave, dropping 110 feet into the mouth of another cave, with no aboveground water source in sight. This spectacular water feature, located within Scott’s Gulf near Sparta, Tenn., was officially dedicated as part of Virgin Falls State Natural Area Wednesday.

Virgin Falls, one of the region’s most unique geologic features, is located within Scott’s Gulf, an 18-mile canyon situated along the Caney Fork River. The waterfall emerges from an underground stream on the south slope of Little Chestnut Mountain, drops 110 feet and then vanishes underground again.

For 40 years, the Virgin Falls area was managed as a natural area by the state through a lease with a private landowner. The land would have been open for possible development when the lease expired, so the Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation reached out to local government officials and individuals to help raise money to purchase the land from owners.

In November 2012, the state acquired the 1,157-acre site for $1.8 million with the help of a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, funds from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and private donations.

Virgin Falls is one of a handful of preservation projects to take place in recent years in East Tennessee. Cummins Falls State Park in Cookeville was dedicated in 2012 as the 54th state park. Rocky Fork State Park outside of Johnson City was dedicated in July 2013 as the 55th state park; and in September 2013, more than 1,000 acres in Rhea and Bledsoe counties were added to the Justin P. Wilson Cumberland State Park and the State Scenic Trail. Coming up in 2014, Seven Islands State Birding Park outside of Knoxville will be dedicated as the 56th state park-and the state’s first birding park.

Gov. Bill Haslam, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner Bob Martineau, Deputy Commissioner for Parks and Conservation Brock Hill and representatives from the community endured chilly temperatures Wednesday to celebrate the protection of 1,157 acres through the Virgin Falls State Natural Area, which is adjacent to the Bridgestone/Firestone Centennial Wilderness.

At Wednesday’s dedication, Mary Lynn Dobson of Roane County spoke on behalf of the Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation: “So why add more land here? Harvard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning entomologist E.O. Wilson said that to save life on the planet, we must conserve large corridors so that ecosystems thrive. To do this, people must be inspired. Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation seeks to conserve the national treasures and destinations that link large corridors.”

Virgin Falls State Natural Area-one of 82 sites protected by the Natural Areas Program-is noted for its unique geological and ecological features, including a number of waterfalls.

“Virgin Falls has been known for its natural features and also as an ecologically diverse site that is important to the protection and conservation of species here in Tennessee,” said David Lincicome, manager of the state’s Natural Heritage Program.

The area is home to four protected plant and wildlife species: Virginia spiraea, a native wildflower classified as federally threatened and state endangered; Cumberland rosemary, a native plant classified as federally and state threatened; the bluemask darter, a freshwater fish classified as federally and state endangered; and the Indiana bat, a medium-sized bat native to North America that is classified as federally and state endangered.

The 4-mile hike in to Virgin Falls is strenuous and passes by small rock houses, boulder fields, sinks, caves and waterfalls. From the parking area, the 8-mile round-trip hike can take five to eight hours, depending on pace. Leashed dogs are allowed on the trail, and backcountry camping is permitted at designated campsites.

Visit the Virgin Falls State Natural Area website for more information.

Directions to Virgin Falls State Natural Area
Virgin Falls is located southeast of Sparta, Tenn., and is accessible via Highway 70. Go to the community of DeRossett, 11 miles east of Sparta, turn onto Eastland Road and proceed 6 miles to Scott’s Gulf Road. There, you will see a sign for the Bridgestone/Firestone Centennial Wilderness. Turn right onto Scott’s Gulf Road and proceed 2 miles to the parking area and trailhead on the right side of the road.

Jenni Frankenberg Veal enjoys writing about the natural world and exploration opportunities found within the southeastern United States, one of the most biologically and recreationally rich regions on earth. Visit her blog at

Updated @ 9:50 a.m. on 12/18/13 to correct a factual error: The manager of the state’s Natural Heritage Program is David Lincicome, not David Lipscomb, as originally reported.