Virgin Falls State Natural Area
Sorry this is a long write up for this hike- it's mostly so I can come back and read it because I loved this hike so much!
We had only reached mile three in this hike when Michael an I were both exclaiming how this was easily the best hike we've ever done. We had already seen two waterfalls, one that flowed over the edge of a sink hole and then down into an underground cave, we found a little swimming hole with the bluest water I've ever seen in a mountain river, there were wildflowers everywhere, the trail was narrow and exciting and our surroundings were out of this world (I didn't take pictures to show our surroundings but we were hiking down in a gorge so there were mountains surrounding us). Coming into the hike we were definitely unprepared, we passed groups of backpackers coming out of the gorge for the weekend and I immediately thought to myself that this was going to be longer than a 3 mile walk (I never googled it to see how long it would be- don't ever do that). I stopped one backpacker and his son and asked how long it was to Virgin Falls, "uhhh I think about 4 to 5 miles there but then you gotta hike back outta here." They were both covered head to toe in sweat- slightly intimidating. So far we had only hiked a mile in and it was easy. Michael and I looked at each other and decided we were going to do it, while everyone coming out looked completely dead they also each had packs on their backs which makes hiking uphill infinitely harder. Since we were backpack free we picked up the pace and began our trek down into the gorge. While you're hiking in it will be easy for the first mile, then you'll hear the water, then you'll start heading downhill, wayyy downhill. You'll come to a creek crossing with a metal wire above it to help you cross and on the other side of this creek is a campground, pass the campground and then you'll hike up to Big Branch Falls. Beside Big Branch Falls is a bit of a cave created by an overhang of rocks. Keep hiking. You'll then get to a fork in the trail where you can either go right and hike to an outlook or stay straight towards Virgin Falls. We decided against the outlook since we had come for the waterfalls and we stayed straight. The next spot we came up to was a swimming hole that we spotted a little ways off the trail, we hiked down to it and I completely fell in love with it (the color of the water in the sun and in the shade- both shown above- was unreal). We stayed here for a few minutes too long just soaking up the view, the color of the water, and the strange sensation that we had just stumbled into a Caribbean jungle. Then after another mile of hiking we came to (heard it first) Big Laurel Falls. All along this section of the trail you're hiking above a mountain river where there are tons of cascades, swimming holes, and even sections of the river that disappear to underground caves. Big Laurel Falls was spectacular, especially because there was a good amount of water flowing over the edge; the waterfall is a result of a sink hole. So, as you can see from pictures above, the water flows over the edge and then disappears to an underground cave/river. The sound of the waterfall plus the sound of the water echoing off the walls of the cave underneath was just so cool. We hiked down into the cave and stood in sheer awe of the size of it. It was also super cool to get behind the waterfall and look out to the other side. From here we kept hiking. At 3.4 miles you'll come to a junction where the Virgin Falls Loop begins. Take a RIGHT to go to Sheep Cave first. This route is easier and you'll have more downhill than you will uphill. Sheep Cave was really hard to get a good picture of. Basically it's a river that comes out of the mouth of a cave (no doubt it was an underground river) and then falls 50-60 feet or so back down underground. It doesn't have a very heavy stream of water, but the sound of the water and the sheer composure of the cave and the area was very cool to climb around and explore. We stopped at the mouth of the cave and used my LifeStraw to get some good fresh water from the underground river. After this point we kept hiking around the loop until we got to Virgin Falls- finally (this will be after hiking a little over 4 miles). This waterfall is so interesting because although you would guess that the water flows over the top edge from a river or stream, it actually flows out of a crack in the rocks above the falls (must be an underground river) and then falls 110 feet and immediately flows back into another cave. There was so much mist and within seconds we were covered with tiny droplets of water. The mist causes everything to become very, very slippery so if you visit this waterfall be careful around the area! To say the very least, the waterfall was breathtaking especially if you take into account that the waterfall is the only place the water sees the surface. We stayed and just watched it for a good bit of time before reluctantly leaving and retracing our footsteps back to parking area.
Hiking out of the gorge is challenging but wasn't as bad as we were warned by other hikers. Countless people we chatted with on our way in told us coming back out sucked and at the beginning of the trail there's a sign that warns you that the hike is strenuous and only for experienced hikers. Michael and I made it out with some heavy breathing but we didn't feel that it was crazy hard; we've definitely done some harder hikes together.
On our way out we had to stop at Laurel Falls again because the mist was making a rainbow and then we stopped at that magical little swimming hole to dip our feet into the water and I was shocked at how freezing cold it was, my feet felt numb within minutes. I put the camera down and recorded us as we relaxed but we ended up taking turns with the mircrofiber towel drying each others feet off and rubbing the tightness out. It was so funny-looking in the video to see ourselves rubbing each other's feet so I kept the footage out of my final trip video but will always giggle when I watch it from now on (it did feel amazing though, thanks for thinking of that one Miguel).
If you are ever in this area I really recommend you do this hike. Not as experienced of a hiker? Don't worry you can still do it, just get there early, give yourself the entire day to hike and take lots of breaks. It's challenging but definitely not impossible.
To read more about Virgin Falls Natural State Area go here
These, 35.854218, -85.282115 , are the coordinates for the parking area.
To read further directions visit my guide on The Outbound.