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Published: January 26th 2012
Falls Creek Falls
View of the falls, with Falls Creek Falls on the left. The waterfall on the right only appears during spring snowmelt.
I-40 Pigeon River Gorge
Today I drove into Tennessee.
It involved mountains.
Lots and lots of mountains.
The first part was the scariest drive I have ever had on an interstate, Pigeon River Gorge
The Pigeon River cut the gorge through the Blue Ridge.
It’s the most convenient crossing for hundreds of miles.
Settlers pushed through a wagon road in the 1800s, which became a real road, which became Interstate 40.
Convenient does not mean that the crossing is easy.
The road features narrow lanes, sharp curves, and constant hills.
In a few spots, dirt roads merge directly onto the highway.
Now, imagine driving this with a concrete barrier three feet to the left and a convoy of large trucks three feet to the right, and the scary part is obvious.
In my car, there is another hazard.
The gorge is beautiful.
In a few spots waterfalls occur right next to the highway.
It’s hard to just look at the road.
I got through it all with techniques learned from whitewater rafting trips: take the hazards one item at a time,
A convertible meets flowering trees
let the road go where it will, and look at the scenery only when the stress load is low enough.
People love making videos of this highway:
Eventually, I got through the gorge and into Tennessee.
The curves got better, although there were still plenty of hills.
This part of the drive featured two sights that will never be featured in a tourist brochure.
The first was a mountain removal coal mine
This type of mining involves systematically blasting off the top of a mountain to expose the coal seams underneath.
One of these mines was located close to the highway.
It looked like a scar on the earth.
The other was a pair of very tall concrete chimneys in the distance, which grew and grew.
Eventually, the highway crossed a river, right next to an old coal burning power plant
Calling the site dirty is an understatement; the chimneys exist to dump all the pollutants on residents of other states instead of locally.
Time Zone Crossing
Along this road, I crossed a
A sampling of the steep rocky descent into the gorge
time zone by car for the first time.
I’ve crossed zones before, or course, but always by flying.
I mentally included the time change as part of the flight time.
Here, it was jarring and obvious.
One second, its 3:15.
A second later, everything including the position of the sun looks the same, except that it is 2:15.
The experience was minorly disconcerting.
It’s something I need to get used to, because I have more crossings yet to come.
Falling Creek Falls
I pulled off the highway in the Cumberland Plateau.
This high tableland covers a large part of eastern Tennessee.
Rivers have cut into this plateau for centuries, creating deep gorges.
The gorges have spectacular waterfalls.
I went to see some at the state’s largest park, Falling Creek Falls
Unlike most parks, the main waterfall is located a good distance from the tourist facilities.
One can either drive there on a backwoods road, or hike a trail.
I wanted to see woods along with water, so I took the trail.
The trail runs along the plateau,
Pine tree on gorge wall
A pine tree growing high on the gorge wall, directly over my head!
so it is relatively flat.
It goes through second generation hardwood forest.
The forest has relatively little underbrush.
At one point, the trail crosses what appears to be a small peaceful stream.
The stream is lined with laurel bushes.
Normally, it is a trickle, but in the spring it had quite a bit of water.
Remember this stream for later.
Eventually, the trail reaches the waterfall
It’s located at the end of a gorge with high vertical walls.
The trail ends at a viewing area built by the Civilian Conservation Corps
in the 1930s.
It has their classic design of walls made of local stone held together with cement.
For safety reasons, the original wood railings have been replaced with metal ones.
The viewing area is at the edge of a cliff, so it looks directly over the gorge.
The waterfall appears on the other side.
The waterfall has two parts, a quick slide to a ledge, and then a long vertical drop.
The vertical drop is away from the wall, giving the classic look of a waterfall.
Grotto on the way to the falls
drop is long enough that the water flow splits into mist on the way down.
A sign calls this falls “The highest east of the Rocky Mountains”, which several other waterfalls also claim.
Understanding this controversy requires some knowledge of waterfall measurement politics
A “drop” is where the water falls off a ledge and hits a bottom.
A waterfall consisting of only one drop is a “single drop falls”, otherwise it is a “cascade”.
There is much debate about how much space between each drop is allowed before a “cascade” becomes “two separate waterfalls”.
The freefall portion of Falls Creak Falls IS the tallest single drop in the eastern US, but the waterfall is technically a cascade due to the sliding portion above it.
Among cascades, there are waterfalls much taller, such as Crab Apple Falls in Virginia (which is composed of six major drops and hundreds of smaller ones).
Remember that peaceful stream from earlier?
This is where it pays off.
The stream also falls into the gorge, less than two yards from Falls Creek Falls.
The view actually has TWO waterfalls
Falls Creek Falls from base
Top of the falls to the base, plus its companion. It is too tall to fit in a vewfinder
in it, one only a yard shorter but much narrower than the other.
The second waterfall gets much less publicity because it dries up much of the year.
After the viewpoint, the real adventure begins.
The trail climbs down into the gorge.
I enjoyed this trail as much for the view of the gorge environment as what awaited at the end.
The first portion of the trail mostly consists of a long series of rock steps and switchbacks.
Soon enough, enormous pine trees appeared.
The gorge was impossible to log in the 1800s, so it now contains the largest group of old growth trees in Tennessee.
Eventually, the trail reaches a sheer rock wall with a huge crack in it.
The trail turns along the wall and passes under a series of ledges.
It’s a little disconcerting to realize that the rocks I’m now stepping over were once located above my head.
Here, spring once again produces a treat.
A little stream fell over the ledge high above my head, producing a drippy waterfall.
This waterfall fell beyond the
The view from Buzzard's Roost
path, so the trail goes behind the falls.
Finally, the trail ends at the pool at the base of the waterfalls.
As nice as they are from the viewpoint at the top, they are even nicer up close at the bottom.
The waterfall gave off enough spay that the viewpoint was soaked.
From here, it’s easy to appreciate just how tall the waterfall really is, and see the ever-changing patterns in the mist.
One can even see the patterns in the rock walls through the mist of the waterfall.
I looked for a long while, and then began the long climb back.
I had more wonders to see.
Pine Creek Falls and Cave Creek Falls
Falls Creek Falls gets all the publicity, but the park has other waterfalls.
Pine Creek falls is located at the end of a narrow road in a side canyon.
It’s the most isolated of the major falls.
The viewpoint is reached by a narrow rocky trail that is very primitive compared to the viewpoints of the other waterfalls.
The waterfall itself is steep slide in a
Falls Creek Gorge
From Buzzard's Roost
True to its name, it’s surrounded by pine trees.
The road to the falls passes perhaps the parks best viewpoint, exceeding even the waterfalls.
It overlooks the gorge at a point where three different branches join together.
The view reminded me quite a bit of Blackwater Falls Gorge
in West Virginia.
The view is called Buzzard’s Roost
, because if one stays there long enough a buzzard will fly close by.
The final waterfalls, by contrast, are the easiest to access. Cave Creek Falls
is located near the entrance road.
From the parking lot, a wide path made of carefully laid stone steps leads to the viewpoint.
It’s another classic work by the CCC.
The viewpoint is located on a cliff above a pool.
At first, the layout seems rather strange, because the waterfall is located on the side of the viewpoint rather than directly in front of it.
The waterfall in this case is a single drop freefall, and it had lots of water in it.
The waterfall is less than half the height of Falls Creek Falls, but it’s at least twice as wide.
The reason for the viewpoint location becomes obvious in the spring: in high water, Rockhouse Falls appears on the other side of the same ledge.
This waterfall is very narrow, but it is a single drop falls and tall.
If it ran year round instead of being seasonal it would rank among the highest single drop falls in the eastern US.
After the waterfalls, I had to get to Nashville.
That meant tangling with the downside of the beautiful gorges in the plateau.
The road had to cross some of them, in series of switchbacks down and up.
The curves were tight, and not all of them had guardrails.
Eventually, I reached a major highway and things got easier again.
I had dinner tonight in a restaurant called the Cracker Barrel
This chain is found all over the US, but it somehow feels more authentic in eastern Tennessee where it started.
The theme is pure nostalgia, both for the old country stores that were the center of social life in mountain towns (when crackers really were delivered in barrels) and for
Falls Creek Falls Lake
Falls Creek Falls Lake, the artificial lake that supplies the waterfall
the early days of auto tourism in the 1950s.
Inside they look vaguely like a hunting lodge, and are decorated with the type of antiques found at flea markets.
The designers do a good job, so it all works together rather well.
The food is best described as Southern comfort food
, what they describe as “Country cookin’ “.
In any case, its tasty, filling, and low priced.
Along with Waffle House, this chain is a road trip driver’s lifeline.
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