Virgin Falls State Natural Area

Virgin Falls State Natural Area is part of Scott's Gulf, a canyon situated along the Caney Fork in White County, Tennessee, in the southeastern United States. The canyon stretches for approximately 18 miles (29 km) as the Caney Fork drops from the top of the Cumberland Plateau down to the eastern Highland Rim. This remote section of the river is home to a wilderness area consisting of a largely undisturbed deciduous forest, numerous waterfalls, caves and other geological formations, and Class IV and Class V whitewater rapids.

Roughly 10,000 acres (40 km2) of Scott's Gulf is owned by the State of Tennessee, most of it situated within the Bridgestone/Firestone Centennial Wilderness and the Virgin Falls Pocket Wilderness Area. Both are managed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

The Caney Fork rises near Campbell Junction in Cumberland County and gently drops in elevation as it winds its way southward across the Cumberland Plateau. Near the old mining town of Clifty, the river veers southwest and begins cutting Scott's Gulf as it drops nearly 700 feet (210 m) in elevation in just over 5 miles (8.0 km) before its confluence with Bee Creek at the base of the gorge. The river then calms and turns westward through the gorge's remote western section, which is characterized by steep walls and teal waters. Just after it exits the Scott's Gulf area, the Caney Fork absorbs Cane Creek (which drains Fall Creek Falls State Park several miles to the south) and the Calfkiller River en route to another dramatic gorge at Rock Island State Park. (Click for map)

During the summer and fall months, the Caney Fork is usually completely dry from well-above Virgin Falls to below the mouth of Scotts Gulf. This is caused by the fact that the entire Caney Fork sinks into the limestone river bed and follows cave passages below the river bed to emerge at a large spring. So, for roughly half of the year (winter and spring), the Caney Fork appears to be a normal river as it flows in its bed, but for the other half of the year (summer and fall), the Caney Fork flows completely underground for several miles. Sinking streams, dry creeks, caves, and large springs are features of karst geology.

Scott's Gulf is hemmed in on the north by three sections of the Plateau which rise steeply from the banks of the Caney Fork at roughly 850 feet (260 m) to the edge of the Plateau at 1,700 feet (520 m). On the northeast is Chestnut Mountain, which stretches from Polly Branch in the east to Big Laurel Creek in the west. Little Chestnut Mountain dominates the Gulf's north-central section, stretching from Big Laurel Creek in the east to Lost Creek in the west. Opposite Lost Creek on the northwest is a narrow backbone-like formation known as Pine Mountain, which parallels the Plateau's escarpment. Scott's Pinnacle dominates the southern section of Scott's Gulf.

Virgin Falls, one of the area's most well-known and unique features, emerges from an underground stream on the south slope of Little Chestnut Mountain, drops 110 feet (34 m), and vanishes underground again. The source of the water for Virgin Falls is Virgin Falls Cave. The lower mouth to this cave is located approximately 150 feet upstream from the lip of the Falls. Virgin Falls Cave trends roughly southwest for 3,000 feet before ending in a massive ceiling collapse (breakdown). The cave stream easily flows through this breakdown, but no passage through the breakdown has been discovered. The cave itself is mainly one very large (30 feet wide and 40 feet high) stream passage. At the base of Virgin Falls, the water flows approximately 10 feet and falls into a large pit, the entrance to Virgin Falls Pit. At the bottom of this pit, the water follows cave passages and emerges as a spring at the base of the Cumberland Escarpment.

The flow of Virgin Falls varies from barely a trickle in late summer and early fall (the dry season), to a raging torrent during the late winter and early spring (the wet season). The source of this enormous amount of water during the wet season was a mystery for many years, but geologist Nicholas C. Crawford conducted dye tests that conclusively proved that the source of the water for Virgin Falls was a sinking creek in Lost Creek Cove, nearly three (3) miles to the north. Lost Creek Cove is a polje, a geologic feature that consists of a very large, closed depression in karst topography where all the water drains underground. One of the sinking creeks in Lost Cove re-emerges at Virgin Falls and the other re-emerges at Lost Creek Falls, 1.8 miles west of Virgin Falls. This area has a complex and fascinating underground flow pattern that has been studied for years by local cavers and geologists.


  • Big Laurel Falls is situated along Big Laurel Creek a mile or so above the creek's mouth along the Caney Fork. There is a substantial limestone cave behind the falls.
  • Sheep Cave/Sheep Falls, a 90 foot (27 m) waterfall and a cave near Virgin Falls on the slopes of Little Chestnut Mountain.

The Virgin Falls Trail heads west from Scott's Gulf Road toward Big Laurel Creek, passes Big Laurel Falls, and descends rapidly to the Caney Fork bottom-lands where it forks, with one branch heading east to the Caney Fork Trail and the other branch heading west up the slope of Little Chestnut Mountain to Virgin Falls.


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Virgin Falls Trail



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