Have you ever wanted to see both a waterfall and a cave on one hike? Then Stephens Gap Callahan Cave Preserve is the place for you. Not only do you get to see a waterfall and a wild cave here, but they are both in the same place! The gloomy cavernous space of Stephens Gap Cave features an incredible waterfall that shoots out of an opening in the cave and free-falls over 100 feet into the pit underneath. What's more: you don't need any caving experience at all to get into the Stephens Gap Cave's primary chamber and to view the waterfall. As long as you're capable of scrambling steeply down a boulder field into the cave and don't mind getting dirty, you can easily tour this stunning natural feature. The short hike to the cave is pretty in its own right, especially in spring, when a mosaic of new, bright green ferns is seen among the area's boulder fields and rock outcrops. Access to Stephens Gap Cave is exclusively by a permit system. Only 25 people are allowed to visit the cave on any given day, so it's best to register for your free online permit from the Southeastern Cave Conservancy in advance to ensure your access to the cave. For the best experience, visit the cave after rainfall or during a wetter period - that's when the falls is the most impressive. This hike occurred on Saturday, March 17th, 2018. My plan was to hike out and back to Stephens Gap Cave via the access trail from County Road 30.
R/T Length of Trail: 1.6 Miles
Duration of Hike: 1:00 plus one and a half hours at the cave
Type of Hike: Out and Back
Difficulty Rating: 3 out of 10
Total Elevation Gain: 311 Feet
Pros: One of the most magical and unusual natural sights in the Southeast
Points of Interest: Stephens Gap Cave & Falls - 10+ stars
Trail Blaze Colors: Stephens Gap Cave & Falls Trail - Yellow Diamonds
Best Seasons to Hike: Spring; Winter
Fees: None; however, you must obtain a mandatory free online permit from the Southeastern Cave Conservancy prior to visiting. Only 25 people (NOT cars or groups but individual people) are allowed to visit the preserve per day. You must come with at least one another person, but the group limit is 15. Get a permit here.
Beginning Point: CR 30 Parking Area
Directions from Scottsboro, AL: From the intersection of AL 35 and AL 279 in downtown Scottsboro, follow AL 35 West for 11.2 miles. Then, turn right onto a 400-foot connector to County Road 30. Turn left onto County Road 30. The entrance to the Stephens Gap Cave parking area is on the right in 350 feet. The parking area is now gated; permit owners will have received an access code that would allow them to enter the parking area.
Click the link below to download a .GPX file with a track of this hike.
I'd heard about that magical waterfall inside a wild, undeveloped cave for years. For a long time, I had let myself be grasped by a misconception that this incredible natural feature was very hard to access or even obtain permission to. When I finally set about to research possible destinations for a series of short hikes on a day hiking trip to Alabama, I was excited to find out that it's quite easy to visit Stephens Gap Cave after all. All I had to do was obtain an online permit from the Southeastern Cave Conservancy at www.permits.scci.org. The hike to the cave turned out to be very easy and straight-forward. It did not require any caving or climbing experience whatsoever.
The hike begins at a "Trailhead" sign on the right end of the parking area, next to a new informative kiosk. The trail begins an easy ascent through a boulder field peppered by lush ferns. At 0.35 miles, the trail begins to parallel a rocky drainage. The drainage is normally dry. As the trail ascends at a moderate grade through the hollow, you'll pass numerous rock outcrops and bluffs lining the hollow. This is a surprisingly scenic trail the entire way. If you're visiting the cave at a time of high flow, the trail is also likely to be extremely muddy and slick. Be sure to take your time descending along the trail on your return trip! At 0.7 miles, the trail makes a pair of switchbacks. At 0.8 miles, the main trail ends at Stephens Gap Cave. The trail first passes the hikers' entrance to the cave on the left. The hikers' entrance is a huge opening in the hillside. An obvious scramble path descends a steep boulder field into it. Before entering the cave, however, follow the trail to the edge of the Stephens Gap Cave pit (and be sure to stay away from the dangerous edge). The view into the seemingly-bottomless 143-foot pit is stunning. Although trickles of water cascade into the pit from its very top, the primary spout of water emerges from a small opening a little down the wall of the pit. Note how the same stream that emerges from the side of the pit flows down the hollow a little above the cave, only to disappear underground just before the pit. The geology here is fascinating! On a good weekend day, you're bound to find plenty of cavers around the pit. A fun pastime of cavers is to rappel down the pit and back up.
After viewing the pit from the top, enter the cave through the hikers' entrance. The scramble is pretty short, although you'll probably get muddy in the process. There is enough light in the cave that the use of headlamps won't be necessary, but they might be helpful for safe exploration of the cave's different sections. No words can accurately describe the incredible interior of Stephens Gap Cave. The main chamber is a cavernous space where the cave ceiling is probably 80 feet high at its tallest point. The center of the cave affords a stunning view of the Stephens Gap Cave waterfall rushing out of the cave wall and free-falling into the abyss, joined by the lower arm of flow from the top of the pit. The main part of the waterfall is over 100 feet high (you can't see the lower part unless you get really close). A popular landmark in the cave is the 'mushroom rock', a flat pedestal-shaped rock slab right by the waterfall. I strongly discourage you from trying to get onto the mushroom rock, as the entire area is extremely wet and slick. A fall into the pit can very well be fatal, and it has been proved before. The big free-falling waterfall isn't the cave's only water feature either. Remarkably, another stream exits a wall at the opposite end of the cave with its waterfall. The initial drop is only 20 feet, but this stream then enters a steeply-cascading run as it drops through a canyon before emptying into the pit across from the powerful free-falling waterfall. The cover photo of this report was taken near the 'other' waterfall at the far end of the cave, with part of the main waterfall and the mushroom rock visible in the distance.
Another outstanding feature of Stephens Gap Cave is the surreal sun rays that can frequently be seen inside the cave. The sun rays only form when it's warm and humid enough outside for fog to be present in the pit (and of course when it's sunny). Thus, there's a higher probability of seeing them during summer. The sun rays obscure part of the waterfall but form an equally beautiful, fascinating scene. My recommendation is to visit on a warm partly cloudy day. This way, you can experience both types of cave conditions on the same trip. Regardless of whether your visit is in sunny or cloudy conditions, it's best to go after some rainfall. If you go, please leave no trace in this sensitive environment. One more note I'd like to make is that the vicinity of Stephens Gap Cave is home to a second waterfall cave that fewer folks know about. It is called Waterslide Cave and is at the 1100-foot contour a little above Stephens Gap Cave. In times of good flow, it is probably worth a visit too. I skipped it on this day due to the aggressive agenda I had (my plans included doing two other short hikes the same day).
From Stephens Gap Cave, simply retrace your steps back to the parking area off County Road 30, concluding the hike at 1.6 miles. Due to the extraordinary nature of this hike's destination, I have decided to rate it a "Best Hike". I don't know of any similar natural feature that is so easily accessible anywhere else in the Southeast, let alone Alabama! Alabama doesn't have many spectacular waterfalls, but the waterfall in Stephens Gap Cave sure makes up for it. This is a must-see place for all nature lovers and waterfall hunters - even those of you coming from the land of waterfalls in North Carolina!
0.0 - Trailhead
0.8 - Stephens Gap Cave
1.6 - Trailhead
East of Scottsboro in the small town of Pisgah is one of Alabama's greatest hidden gems: the Pisgah Civitan Park, home to several significant waterfalls on Little Bryant Creek in the Pisgah Gorge, as well as a couple of beautiful vistas and even a massive natural bridge. I highly recommend combining Stephens Gap Cave and Pisgah Gorge in the same day, as I did. A trail report for Pisgah Gorge is coming very soon!
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Mark Oleg Ozboyd
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