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Virgin Falls Pocket Wilderness Area, Tennessee, Report.
A Thursday in September, 2003
Sunny and high of around 80 F.
8:15 a.m.: arrived at the trailhead off Scotts Gulf Road about 15 miles southeast of Sparta, Tennessee. It's a sunny morning with just a hint of chill still in the air. My new nude outdoor friend John "Gone Paddling" is there (John is 'gnpdln' on the NetNude message board). There is no evidence of other people or vehicles, so after introductions, we decide to attempt a portal-to-portal nude hike, going the entire day nude in nature. The sign at the trailhead register says it's 8 miles and to plan 6 to 8 hours, and to take a flashlight in case you get caught by darkness.
8:30: We hit the trail. The first mile or so is flat through mixed hardwood and pine trees, with a smattering of mountain laurel. It's easy going and even with a fast pace we are able to carry on a conversation about ourselves, our introduction and experiences in nudism, and so forth. Soon we are following the dry bed of Big Branch and begin the rocky, rooty descent off the Cumberland Plateau and into the gorge. There is a steel cable for an overhead hand line above the huge stepping stones across the Big Branch, which is evidence that this creek is sometimes much, much more wet than the trickle it is today.
Just ahead we come to the short spur to the left to Big Branch Falls, though we can't see more than a trickle of water. In his book, Middle Tennessee On Foot, Robert Brandt calls this "maybe the most beautiful" of the water falls on the hike. We'll have to reserve judgment for a wetter season.
Also, as we begin the descent into the gorge, we are more and more into the shade of full, tall trees, but our body heat has built up so that we are staying very comfortably warm. It's a pleasant September morning, made all the more so because we are totally nude in nature (except for hiking boots and backpacks). Our shorts and t-shirts are stowed away. Line-of-sight on the trail is not far. If we run into anyone now, there will be no chance to pull on any clothes. We have discussed that if we do run into anyone, we will act totally natural and not as if we are criminals.
We continue down, down, down over rocks, roots, and steps. At one and a half miles the trail splits. The left trail continues along the stream bed. The "main trail" veers to the right, up the gorge towards the bluffs we can see overhead. This is the way to the "scenic overlook" climb to the top of the bluffs, so we head to the right and soon are among huge boulders that have fallen over the eons from the bluff walls. After a few minutes of huffing and puffing upwards, we come to the sign for the overlook trail to the right and take it. We begin climbing more steeply up directly towards the bluffs now and soon come to the loop trail. Half of the scenic overlook loop trail is at the bottom of the bluff and half on top of the bluff. At either end, where the trail goes up or down the bluff, there are wire mesh caged "ladders" (actually just steep stairs). We can't understand why they are "caged" unless it psychological.
In short order we are standing on a bare (pun!) rock overlook atop the Cumberland Plateau, standing totally nude in the warm sun and staring for miles and miles across the various gorges and gulches. We just soak it in.
One thing I failed to mention is that I brought a garbage bag. On my last two trips to parts of Virgin Falls, I have noticed lots of beer cans along the trail and around the various fire pits at the campsites, along with plenty of cigarette butts and food cans and plastic containers partially burned. John has agreed that we will haul out all the litter we find. Although we have found some along the trail so far, there is much more around the scenic overlook loop trail. So, after some time soaking up the sun, we pick up trash. Once we descend the other "caged ladder" there are plenty of empty beer cans in the area for several yards. Perhaps they were thrown from the bluff above.
We head back down the spur to the main trail and then down the gorge once more. John is wondering aloud about how the climb back out is going to be at the end of the day, since this part of the trail is so steeply and continuously down. In about half a mile we come to Big Laurel Falls from above and the trail circles around and past the falls. A short spur takes you back up the stream bed to the falls, which are trickling. Perhaps not a real trickle, but in the scale of what they are obviously like during the wet season, this is nothing. Brandt says in his book the falls make a thunderous 40 foot drop. Nothing thunderous today. BUTT... still a nice scene and a refreshing coolness to the air around the falls.
Interesting, the stream does not continue to flow down the stream bed, but instead flows backwards under the falls and disappears into the ground. The "cave" behind the falls is a HUGE area that might hold several houses, and is sometimes full of water. This part of Tennessee contains so much limestone, that the ground is filled with caves and it is common for streams to come out of caves and disappear into caves. We enjoy climbing naked over boulders and walking on the huge sandy "beach" behind the waterfall. The air is cool and wet.
Soon we press on towards Virgin Falls itself, starting a gradual hike upwards and leaving the stream bed. After a short while the trail levels out. For about a mile it passes through woods with smatterings of sunlight making it through to the smooth somewhat sandy trail section of trail. It's mid-morning and a nice walk. John and I are continuing to get to know how each other became interested in nudism, our respective professions, our families, and our other interests. It's just a fun time.
At about three miles from the trailhead (not counting the scenic overlook loop we took), we came to a split and went up the hill steeply to the right to see Sheep Cave. A small stream comes out of Sheep Cave and disappears in a huge sink. You can walk into the cave for a hundred feet or more before it turns right into pitch blackness. We don't have lights to explore, so we head back for the main trail and on towards Virgin Falls itself.
We have to hike up and over and around a ridge line jutting out from the Cumberland Plateau above us. In less than half a mile we suddenly hear Virgin Falls and there it is through the trees as we crest a little rise in the trail. The water flow is much more than all the other falls we've seen, put together, but still isn't the thunderous roar described and shown in most photos. Still, the 110 foot falls is impressive. We take the loop trail to the right to go up above the falls.
In a very short while we are standing on top of the falls, looking down 110 feet into the sinkhole, where the water disappears as soon at it hits the rocks at the bottom, though a fine mist permeates the sink and creates a micro-climate. Still at the top, we explore where the stream comes out of a cave, passes through some breakdown, then re-emerges from the rocks before spreading out into a nice, wide, shallow pool, before disappearing over the top.
The loop trail above the falls continues on the other side, where we find another fire ring and are soon picking up plenty of burned cans and litter once again. We make our way down the rock wall to the main area where most people camp at Virgin Falls itself. There are several fire rings and plenty of garbage, which we throw into our growing garbage bag.
Even with the litter, Virgin Falls is a very nice place to commune with nature in the nude. But soon we head down that gorge towards the Caney Fork River for our lunch break and skinny dipping. We follow the official trail till it turns sharply to the left, while an old road bed full of river rock continues straight (towards the river?). We stay straight and after a couple of false turns come out on the Caney Fork River a short while later. Here it doesn't look like much. We could probably find a place to walk across it. Although there is a nice wide sandy beach, it is mostly in the shade and not where we intend to skinny dip. So, we head up the river to the left, walking on river rock in the bottom of an old, old jeep trail.
Soon we are at the official campsite where my wife and I camped earlier in the month and skinny dipped and camped nude. Once more, we policed the various fire rings and picked out a lot of burned cans and half-burned plastic, garbage, and litter. Our garbage bag was getting pretty darn full by now. We joked that if caught naked, we'd plead that we were actually doing a good deed and beg for mercy.
This campsite is quite nice. There are big flat areas for tent camping, a small sunny sandy area on the river, and a rope swing. Plus, the river is damned up by some rapids just below, so it is wide and deep and slow moving here.
We shed the remainder of our clothes... being only our socks and hiking boots, lay our packs aside, and go skinny dipping in the cool water, which feels SO good. We try out the rope swing hanging from a large tree over the river. The water is so clear and the sun is directly overhead (we arrived at 12:15), that we can see the bottom way out towards the middle of the river. We enjoy watching all the curious minnows and fish coming over to check out the disturbances in the water.
Finally we break out our lunches and enjoy a bite, then I stretch out on the sand and after a very few minutes almost fall asleep. We discuss how much our wives would enjoy skinny dipping here with us and what great fun simple nudism is.
Finally we decide we should head out for two reasons. One is the long steep hike up and out ahead of us. The other is that the later we stay, the more likely it is that we might run into after-school or after-work hikers coming in from the trailhead later on.
You know, it really doesn't take nudists long to get their stuff together and go, when all they have to put on is socks and boots! We also threw our backpacks on and left the river at 1:30.
The climb out of the gorge was not so bad. Virgin Falls and Sheep Cave are on a big loop. Since we had already done the major part of that loop, we only had to take a short, steep climb from the river area to complete the loop and be back on the main trail. Then we were on the mile-long flat portion of the main trail back to Big Laurel Falls. We didn't even pause when we got there, but immediately tackled the very steepest part of the trail, that by-passing the falls from below to above the falls.
From there the trail still continued upwards, just not as steep. When we came to the portion of the main trail that takes you to the scenic overlook area, we continued on a direct short cut instead, thus avoiding another long section we had already done on the way in. Still, the climbing was robbing us of easy breathing, so we were not now carrying on the regular conversation we had kept going most of the way in during the morning.
Big Laurel Falls, one of the ones you hike by on the way to Virgin Falls.
We also were getting close to the area and time when we were most likely to be caught nude, so some quiet caution seemed appropriate for a while. John is a good hiker and was able to keep up a strong, steady pace the entire day, which I like better than stopping and starting. Soon we completed the last steep portion up the rocky, rooty section of trail among the mountain laurel.
On reaching the level mile or so at the top, we once again had an easy stride and enjoyed more chatter about nudism, and discussions of how to get together again, with our wives and with other nudists for outdoor activities. The day had been so enjoyable for the hike, the weather, the camaraderie, and the nudism.
At 3:00 we reached the trailhead and our cars. Still not a soul or vehicle in sight. We had gone all day, the entire hike, portal-to-portal, NUDE!!! John poured jugs of water over me as I showered there in the trailhead parking lot to clean the sweat and any grime off for the drive home. We enjoyed some cold drinks from the cooler and the nice sunny afternoon. In a bit we heard a vehicle coming and prepared to cover up, but it was a local flat bed truck hauling rock and did not slow down nor give the trailhead parking area the slightest glance.
Finally, John and I did dress (though my shorts came off later after I got gas, for the drive home). We said our appreciative goodbyes. It had been a GLORIOUS way to spend a sunny Thursday. We both hoped we could do it again.
At 3:30 we drove down the gravel access road and turned our separate ways at the highway, I'm sure both relishing this day during the drives to our homes.
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