South Cumberland State Park, TN (Part 1)

One of my favorite places is South Cumberland State Park.  The trail to Sycamore Falls is the first ‘long’ trail (3 MILES!) I ever hiked alone with my kids.  Fiery Gizzard is in my top five trails.  I have camped and backpacked there for nearly 20 years and still have not tired of the area-or even seen it all.

90 miles of hiking trails meander through valley floors, up canyon walls (called ‘gulfs’ locally), across plateaus and along creeks, past waterfalls and to overlooks that are some of the best in the southeast.  Hikers, climbers, swimmers, wildflower and mushroom fans, photographers, campers, backpackers and history buffs will all find something to do at this fabulous state park.

While there are plenty of challenging trails, there are gentle ones as well, suitable for an easy stroll or a walk with small children.  A stop at the visitor center is a perfect introduction to the area.  Pick up maps, look through the interpretive center and talk to one of the staff.  There’s a movie of the area available for watching, a huge topographic map that shows the trails and campsites as they snake around the plateaus and gulfs. The rangers often have programs going on, ranging from a snake talk at the visitor center to a run along one of the trails.  One of our favorites is canoeing at Grundy Lake, especially the sunrise or sunset paddles.  Check out their upcoming events here or follow them on Facebook.

I can’t say much about the park that has not already been written elsewhere.
So, I will simply share a few ideas for exploring the area with children.   There are 4 posts total and doing everything in each section will cover the entire park, other than just a few bits and pieces!

A 3 day/2 night trip with young kids (up to 6 years old)

I won’t assume that people reading this have never left home with a young child before so I won’t spend a great deal of time pointing out there are steep cliffs, long drops, deep water and other natural hazards that can easily be avoided by holding hands or just keeping an eye out. 

Camp at Foster Falls.  There’s no power, but there are water spigots, flush toilets, and hot showers. Each site is level, has a fire ring, picnic table, and lantern pole.

Day One
Arrive, set up and walk to the falls overlook.  Keep going off to the right, following the Fiery Gizzard Trail around the top of the falls.  The trail crosses the creek on a bridge (non-swinging) and pops out on the other side for a nice view down to the falls and the swimming hole below.


Keep following the trail for another 2 miles to the Small Wilds camping area.  It’s easy walking with some nice overlooks.  Finish up at the bluff across from the campsites and head back to camp the same way.


Day Two
Head toward Stone Door and stop along the way at Greeter Falls.  It’s an easy half-mile walk back to the top of the falls where the trail goes upstream to an area above the falls that has good water-play potential in low flow times.

Story, counting fish in the shallows

Hiking to the base of the falls may be too difficult for younger kids as the climb in and out is nothing but stairs:


greeter falls
Greeter Falls

An option along the trail to Greeter Falls is a side trail to Blue Hole this is an easy short hike to a small swimming hole and wading area well above Greeter Falls and is a good option for really small kids who might not do well with the edges at the bigger falls.

Blue Hole

After filling up on waterfalls and water fun, keep heading north to Stone Door.
There’s ranger station here, bathrooms, water and picnic tables.

The trail to the Stone Door is one mile and is along the top of the plateau with views of Laurel Gorge.  It’s paved to the Laurel Gorge Overlook, dirt the rest of the way.


Head back to camp for the evening.

Day Three

Before heading home, take the trail from the campground to the base of Foster Falls.  It’s short but steep.

Rocky and steep, but very short.
Cross the swinging bridge!
Foster Falls is a great spot to enjoy the view, explore the creek or have another swim!


The climb out via Climber’s Loop is easier!

To add to the hike making it a 2-mile loop, follow the trail leading away from the plunge pool along the base of the cliffs.  This is the climber’s loop and there are a couple different ways to walk out.  The path out will meet up with the Fiery Gizzard trail at the top, just take a right and it’s the same trail from 2 days earlier.  Head back to the parking area and head out!

Add on ideas:
Lone Rock Trail at Grundy Lake (swim beach, picnic areas, basketball court, nice trail, historic area) 2.3 mile loop

The Meadow Trail behind the visitor center 1.3 mile loop (lots of local flora, excellent mushroom spot!)


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