If the cooler fall weather has you thinking of doing a long hike, you may want to consider the nearby Fiery Gizzard Trail, located between Tracy City and Jasper and once ranked by Backpacker Magazine as one of the top 25 backpacking trails in the U.S.
Although a couple of backcountry campgrounds are available for use by backpackers, the Fiery Gizzard can be done as a one-way day hike involving a car shuttle. The actual Fiery Gizzard Trail is 12.5 miles, but the hike I’m recommending here is 13.3 miles.
The trail can be hiked either direction, but I’ve always started at Grundy Forest in Tracy City and finished at Foster Falls, which puts me at Raven Point around lunchtime.
Grundy Forest State Natural Area is part of the South Cumberland State Park. The Fiery Gizzard Trail begins to the left of the picnic shelter and soon drops sharply to follow alongside Little Fiery Gizzard Creek. This is a beautiful hike, characterized by hemlock trees and small waterfalls. At 0.7 miles, after passing a 500-year-old hemlock tree standing next to a large rock shelter, the 2-mile Grundy Forest Day Loop continues straight while the main trail turns left, crossing a bridge over Little Fiery Gizzard Creek. Soon, the trail passes the junction with Big Fiery Gizzard Creek and, shortly, the impressive Black Canyon Falls, Chimney Rock, a 20-foot-high rock column, and a short spur trail on the right that leads to Sycamore Falls.
At 1.5 miles, you reach the Dog Hole Trail, which splits off to the left and is named for the small coalmine entrance it passes. Here, unless you’re really fit, I highly recommend taking the Dog Hole Trail. The Fiery Gizzard Trail follows the canyon bottom for another 2.2 miles of very rocky and tiresome hiking before beginning a steep climb up the mountainside near Raven Point. The Dog Hole Trail reaches the top with an easier climb, then follows near the bluff top on relatively level terrain, reuniting with the Fiery Gizzard Trail in 2.8 miles.
Here, the Raven Point Campground is on the left, while a 0.5-mile hike to the right on a spur trail will take you to Raven Point, with a great view of the Fiery Gizzard and a likely spot for lunch. After retracing your route to the campground intersection, turn right to continue toward Foster Falls on the Fiery Gizzard Trail.
For the next 5.2 miles, the trail generally travels through forested and gently rolling plateau top, passing near a couple of small waterfalls, an overlook and the site of an old moonshine still before dropping sharply into the 200-foot-deep Laurel Branch Gorge. After reaching the top on the other side, you only have another 2.5 miles to go.
The remainder of the trail follows close to the bluff and is fairly level. At 0.3 miles after emerging from Laurel Branch Gorge, the Small Wilds Camping Area is on the left. There are several overlooks on this section. The third one has the best view. It is unmarked but is to the right after crossing a stream 0.7 miles from Laurel Branch Gorge. On this final section, you’ll see two accesses to the approximately 1-mile Climbers Loop, which is a bit rocky and follows the base of the bluff to Foster Falls, then climbs steeply out. This location is a popular rock climbing destination. After passing Foster Falls, the trail soon crosses Little Gizzard Creek upstream from the falls, then passes views of the falls from the other side and ends at the Foster Falls parking lot.
The Foster Falls Small Wild Area is owned by TVA and has a developed campground.
Things to note
Although in recent years over 6,000 acres of land in and adjacent to the Fiery Gizzard have been conserved, some of the trail still crosses privately owned land. The park staff stresses that in order to ensure the continued goodwill of the landowners who allow the trail to cross their property, “it’s very important that trail users stay on the trail and obey trail regulations.”
Deer hunting using high-powered rifles is allowed on private lands the trail traverses from late November through early January. During this time, it is recommended that hikers wear at least 500 square inches of blaze orange. I personally try to stay out of such areas when hunting may be occurring. See hunting schedules here.
Permits are required for camping in the backcountry campsites and can be obtained at the park visitors center in Monteagle. Detailed trail maps with trail descriptions can be found at the visitors center and usually at the trailheads, as well as viewed online here. See a map showing the locations of trailheads at the park website. Note: On that map, Grundy Forest is erroneously labeled as “Grundy Lakes State Natural Area.” Grundy Lakes is a separate unit. On the road, watch for the brown signs indicating Grundy Forest and Foster Falls.
Bob Butters explores nature and the outdoors, primarily in and near the South Cumberland region, and publishes the blog www.Nickajack-Naturalist.com.