Everyone has a life list, something they either keep in
their heads or write down, a list of places they want to go. The usual-New York
City or maybe Grand Canyon or Disney World or all three and many other places,
perhaps having read about a particular bakery or museum, the name of the place
is added to the list. Most of us never get to all of them, but when you get
to any of them, it adds its own element of excitement and adventure, simply
for having been desired for so long.
Hikers and backpackers have an additional column on their life lists and those are hikes they want to take. Many of their lists include Virgin Falls in Tennessee. A 10+ mile trail in the Virgin Falls Pocket Wilderness Area near Sparta, Tennessee, the Virgin Falls trail offers everything hikers crave and then some. A tough workout, beautiful scenery, a cold stream to cool off in. It has waterfalls, caves and the supreme pay-off, a huge waterfall at the end complete with enough volume (at times) to create a breeze of its own sending a mist-filled cool wind up from the valley floor to ward off the ever-present hovering gnats and cool the tired hiker.
I hiked Virgin Falls 8 years ago with an 8-year old Jake and my friend Leighanne and her 8-year old, Leighton. At the time, walking a couple miles at a time at the same pace as a toddler was my usual routine. We had hiked and camped in the area several times before with all of our kids in tow, so I thought I was comfortable with the terrain and we headed out to hike to the falls and I realized I had no idea what real hiking entailed. I remember several high points of the trail-the many falls, the cable that goes across the creek, the falls and the cave, Virgin Falls themselves. But mostly I remember being bone-weary and the last 2 miles out nearly killed me dead. And they were the easiest. My stamina was crap.
It's long been on my list as somewhere I wanted to go with all three kids and Matt. It has been in the back of my mind for years, but I kept nudging it away-it's so far we'd have to stay overnight, it's a tough hike, we'd all need good hikers that were broken in. It's physically and mentally demanding because of the distance, so we'd need some long hikes under our belts for the mental boost. I wanted to go in Spring because no where on earth is as beautiful as Eastern Tennessee in the Spring. There had to be rain recently but not so recent that the trail would be too muddy. I remember that the most from our first hike-for every step I took, I slid backward and had to take half of it all over again.
Early on in March, we walked a 9+ mile walk and 2 weeks later, walked over 14 miles in an afternoon. These were 'easy' in that the terrain was flat, but just like the temperature of swimming water, the kids barely seem to register climbs. The key was the distance. They'd already done it. The weather has been perfect, we bought warmer bags over the winter for backpacking and everyone has broken-in hiking shoes. Before I could change my mind, I got us up Saturday morning and told everyone to pack, we were going camping.
I did not tell them where, I was concerned that if Jake heard the trail name, he'd balk and mouth about it to Ben and Chan and get them set against it. I am not the only one who remembers that hike with something less than pure relish. While he did beautifully for a little guy, it was as tough on him as it was on me, neither of us was prepared for the distance.
Just to show how awesome the whole family is, they simply asked what kind of clothes they needed and gathered their things. We loaded the van and I put in the Little Caesar's in Sparta as our destination. Of course we did not drive right there. First, we had to stop at the Asian market and get seaweed, aloe drinks and taro cookies, then over to Kroger for protein bars and granola. Since we were dry camping, we bought a couple gallons of water, too. Matt had filled all of our water bottles at home as well, so we were set! With another stop in Winchester, Tennessee to fill up the van ($3.62 a gallon!) and a stop at Manchester to get a geocache at the air force base, we made good time, arriving at Scott's Gulf by 5.
Zep watching through the rain as Daddy and Big Brother head out to take some photos of the planes at Arnold Air Force Base
The site I intended to camp at-Polly Branch Falls trailhead-was packed with pop-up campers! We drove on in and passed the Virgin Falls trailhead and there were 40 cars, maybe more, crammed in the lot and spilling out onto the roadway and filling a near-by field. Ack! We kept going, finally setting up at the Yellow Bluff Overlook trailhead about 2 miles down the road. There was a little drama involved with that choice, when we pulled in, there were 2 men in a Rubicon who looked like they were packing up. We got out and walked around, it had rained briefly around 3 and the ground was very wet and there were gnats-not little gnats, but ones about half the size of a housefly-who had a penchant for ears. I walked over and asked one of them if they were expecting company. He said 'you never know' and I realized he was so drunk he could barely stand. It looked like they were packing because they had been picking up beer cans in case we were the game warden.
I explained we wanted to camp, but had children and did not want to be kept up with rowdy neighbors. He said we could not camp there anyway, it was not a camping area. He asked if we had spoken with the game warden. I said I had been on the phone with him that morning and had a printed out map with this location marked as okay to camp at. They milled around, laying out a tent and poking at their cooler, so we got back in the van and kept going down the road, thinking we might find another campsite, but turned around when the road turned to a 4x4 road. On our way back up, we passed them headed for the 4x4 road, so we pulled back in and set up at Yellow Bluff. By then, the gnats were fading quickly and within 20 minutes or so, there were only a few buzzing around.
I set about unloading the van and Matt went to set up the tents. We had...one tent, a 3-man. I went through the van again. One tent. Matt set it up and I cleaned out the back of the van, moving everything to the 2 front seats and we set up the boys in the back of the van. We walked down to the overlook, a hike that at one time I had to drag Chandler up the hill while she whined and cried about how far it was, swearing in my head that I was done taking them anywhere. The kids remembered the view, Ben in particular, which surprised me since he was all of 4 the last time he was there. I lagged behind on the short walk back to the campsite, watching Chan all but skip up the little incline that at one time had nearly ended our hiking as a family.
THIS is THE terrible hill!
We had the last of the pizza, tried to get
a fire going, but the wood was too wet and finally went to bed before 8.
I slept about...an hour. Between the occasional ROARING truck flying by on the road, the night noises, the airplanes going over, a damned whippoorwill who called ALL night, the moon being half-full but brighter than a street light, the coyotes going nuts in the valley floor below and Matt snoring-keep in mind he had gone so long without the CPAP that we had put it in the closet to get it out of the way-I laid awake most of the night. My sleeping pad kept going flat. After 2 attempts to re inflate, I just left it flat. Just after the sun started to brighten the sky, there were gunshots and not far away-sounding, though with the way the valley floor folds and curves, it could have been a mile or more. We got up and got going. I made hot tea and Matt and I made some kind of silent truce about the snoring while we drank our tea and looked at the pinking sky.
It took a while to get everyone up and dressed and to load daypacks and get the van back in order, but by 8, we were on the road to make the short drive to the trailhead. About half the vehicles were still there, so we parked on the edge of the road and locked down Nettlevan and hit the trail.
Virgin Falls Trail