South Cumberland State Park: Fiery Gizzard Trail - Foster Falls/Climbers Loop and Laurel Gorge Overlook/Laurel Branch, Tracy City, Tennessee
The Fiery Gizzard Trail is one of the most beautiful and diverse trails in the state of Tennessee. Also, Backpacker Magazine lists it in the top 25 trails in the US. The nature in this part of the South Cumberland Plateau is beautiful. The Fiery Gizzard Trail starts on the southern edge of the city limits of Tracy City, and travels for 12 miles through rugged canyons in the Fiery Gizzard Creek watershed to Foster Falls Day Use Area. Foster Falls, a 60-foot single drop waterfall, makes for an exciting end to the trail. This hike occurred on Saturday, August 2nd, 2014. Starting the hike in the Foster Falls Day Use Area, I first checked out the Foster Falls Overlook. Then, I took the Fiery Gizzard Trail to pass above Foster Falls, and continued all the way to Laurel Gorge Overlook. My original plan was to stop here, but I decided to continue and make the rugged descent into the Laurel Branch Gorge. Then, I retraced my steps all the way back to the Climbers Access 2 to the Climbers Access Trail. This rugged trail descends down to Little Gizzard Creek and crosses just below Foster Falls on a swinging bridge, before ascending to the top of the rim and ending at the parking area.
R/T Length of Trail: 5.2 Miles
Duration of Hike: 3 Hours
Type of Hike: Loop with Spur
Difficulty Rating: 6 out of 10
Pros: Big waterfall; panoramic views; several camping areas; rock climbing access; no unbridged creek crossings
Cons: Steep and rugged trail in Laurel Branch Gorge; very rugged Climbers Trail
Best Season(s) to Hike: Fall; Winter
Trail Blaze Color(s): All trails - White; Campsite spurs - Blue
Beginning Point: Foster Falls Day Use Area Parking Lot
Directions: From Tracy City, TN: Follow US Route 41 South for roughly 7 miles to Foster Falls Road. Turn right onto Foster Falls Road. Drive for 0.4 miles to the dead-end and parking area.
When I hiked in the Chattanooga Valley area earlier this day, the weather was a bit threatening. When I drove a mere 40 miles north to Tracy City, it was completely sunny and much cooler. Out of the two hikes on this day, I liked this one more. This hike was a textbook Cumberland Plateau hike - and out of the best in the area. the hike starts at the medium-sized parking lot in the Foster Falls Day use Area. There are some minor facilities. There's two trails that lead from the parking area: the Fiery Gizzard Trail and the Climbers Access Trail. The Fiery Gizzard Trail is the route in, and the Climbers Access trail is the route out.
The Fiery Gizzard Trail is one of the most beautiful and diverse trails in Tennessee. In addition, Backpacker Magazine lists it in the top 25 best trails in the US. Wow! the whole trail is 12 miles one way, and you can truly tell how beautiful it is when you hike both sections in the same day, but on this day, I just did the southern section. The Fiery Gizzard Trail starts on the upper end of the parking lot. It will lead you right away to a trailside kiosk.with some information. The trail starts off slightly downhill and reaches a powerline cut at 0.1 miles. Here, there is a small overlook. You can see Foster Falls through the trees directly below. Here, the trail continues along the cliff. There are some steps as the trail descends to a steel bridge over Little Gizzard Creek at 0.2 miles. After this, the trail gradually ascends for 0.2 miles to a junction with the Father Adamz Campsite Spur Trail at 0.4 miles. The trail flattens out and at 0.5 miles, it reaches a large overlook on a cliff directly across from Foster Falls. Here, you can see both the falls and the large pool, as well as some views of the Little Gizzard Creek gorge. This is one of the best places on the entire hike to view the falls. After this, the trail turns right (west) and stays flat along the rim of the gorge.
Over the next mile, the trail stays mainly flat as it follows the rim. You'll soon pass the other end of the Father Adamz Campsite spur, followed by boardwalks over some muddy areas. Then, there will be two junctions, a few tenths of a mile apart. The first one is Climbers Access 1, followed by Climbers Access 2. Climbers Access 2 will be the return route, but for now, continue following the Fiery Gizzard Trail. At 1.8 miles, the trail crosses small stream with some great views into the Fiery Gizzard Creek gorge. There will be a couple more small stream crossings, but the trail will stay flat as it follows the rim. At 2.2 miles, the trail reached an unmarked path that went left to the Small Wild Overlook. This was one of the best overlooks on the hike! Right after this, there was the spur to the Small Wild Campsite on the right, followed by another stream. At 2.4 miles, a small but great overlook on the left (Laurel Gorge Overlook) gave a breathtaking view of the gorge. I could also see the fog and clouds descending on the ridgelines on the horizon, heading this way. Now, don't expect the trail to stay flat like it did before. At 2.5 miles, the flat walk gave way to a sudden plunge into the Laurel Branch Gorge. It starts off with some rock scrambling down some boulders, and then just straight down the rocky terrain with a couple of switchbacks. In just 0.1 mile, the trail descends to the bridge over Laurel Branch. This is the turnaround point. You can certainly see the majesty of the rock littered, steep gorge walls here! If you are coming to Laurel Gorge Overlook, you definitely have to make the additional trip into Laurel Branch Gorge.
From here, I proceeded back all the way to Climbers Access 2. Along the way, I pictured a nice sunset at Small Wild Overlook. You'll reach Climbers Access 2 about 4 miles into the hike. Here, turn right. It stays flat as it approaches the rim, but then... it suddenly plunges down a set of steep steps into the gorge! The trail becomes very rocky as it follows the rock walls that make this trail a "Climbing Access". Along the way, you'll pass an access to the best spot for rock climbing. Don't go there - it's a dead-end. Then, the trail becomes a little hard to see as it reaches Climbers Access 1. Keep straight. the trail descends down rock steps further into the Little Gizzard Creek gorge, and finally at 5 miles, it crosses Little Gizzard Creek on a swinging bridge. Here, there is also a spur trail to Foster Falls. The brief ascent that follows is only 0.1 miles long, but it is steep! The trail can easily be lost in here, although eventually you'll reach a set of steps that brings you back onto the rim. Here, there's a great overlook of Foster Falls and the Little Gizzard Creek gorge. Follow the boardwalk from the overlook and powerlines for 0.1 miles back to the parking area.
I will name this hike a "Best Hike"! Reason? The diversity of the landscape, the beauties of the gorges, the fantastic overlooks, and a great waterfall thrown in for good measure... made this one of the best hikes I've been on on the Cumberland Plateau. No wonder that the Fiery Gizzard Trail is out of the top 25 trails in the US. I highly recommend this hike.
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