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Spring 2015 Trip

Hey! I could use some serious help in planning an upcoming trip..

I am from Michigan and for my spring break some of my buddies and I want to go backpacking. Our spring break is early, March 1-8, and we would like to go somewhere (relatively) warm. A little background on the hikers.. I am the only experienced backpacker and have done a few 5 day hikes, but mostly 3-4 day hikes in the UP and lower Michigan.  The other guys, this will be their first trip. I have gear for the four of us to spend 3-5 days on a trail. We would ideally like to keep each day hike around 5-6 miles, and maybe spend 1 day doing a day hike.

I have done some research and found some really good trails in southern TN (Smoky Mountains, Savage Gulf in the Cumberland State Park Area..etc), but I have never been out that way. We want something that is as scenic as possible!! I really don't know much about hiking outside of Michigan, so any advice for us would be great. 

Thank you for reading!


Hello Jacob, I hope we can be of help!

You have already named the two places I would highly recommend, Savage Gulf or the Great Smokey Mnts aka (GSMNP).  I am more familiar with Savage Gulf, It has been a very long time since I was in GSMNP....but we have several members here who know the area well.

Savage Gulf sits atop the Cumberland Plateau, and has a great network of trails & camping areas that can be used to design just about any kind of experience your group wants. There are two main entrances into the area with ranger stations.

Savage Gulf SNA is a very cool place because it is a five finger canyon sitting on a flat plateau. The area has canyon trails that criss cross into the different canyons as well as trails that climb up to waterfalls (water flow is rainfall dependent).

This is not my photo, it is from Flickr. But I have sat at this spot and enjoyed morning coffee many times.

The trail system also lets you hike trails that run along the canyon rims (these were always my favorite ones) the views are great!

You can camp up on top of the plateau and enjoy morning coffee siting on the canyon rim watching the vultures & raptors climb up out of the canyon using the morning thermals. Very Cool!

If you want, you can camp in the canyon floor and day hike up out of the canyon (fill up on water first) and then hike the flat trails that wind through the forests & meadows of the plateau. Maybe visit Hobb's Cabin even!

It is a perfect place to base camp and do day hikes, with a myriad of route choices using the trail network. You can cover as mush or as little trail distance as you wish without leaving the area, like you do when you backpack a long linear trail. I find this method to be a good one for groups where some of the members don't have a lot of backpacking experience.

I will let Patman or one of the other members comment on GSMNP since I am not current on the area. I will say, it is an exceptionally cool area with views that are hard to beat anywhere in the southeastern US.

I have a couple other areas in mind that I will add later today, as time allows.

Here are some of my old photos of Savage Gulf.

Click to enlarge.

One of the canyon trails crossing a stream.

A view from one of the rim trails, it is windy & straight down here so don't let your jacket or map get blown over the edge beside you, I lost a trail map here!

One of the Rim Trails, can't remember where.

This is about halfway up out of the canyon floor.

About 3/4 to the top on a day hike. My shirt was drenched in sweat.


My son on the same day hike, a little farther up one of the rim trails.

Poor photo, but this is me sitting on the edge of one of the waterfalls, as you can see it is dry. Water flow is rainfall dependent and the rangers can tell you about the expected water levels. I don't ever remember having problems getting water in the main stream in the canyon.


The best way to plan a trip in the Smokies is to use the park map which you can download from the main .gov site here: ; this map includes the elevation of every campsite but not the total gain and loss from each point. My favorite modern Smokies trail guide is the known as the “brown book”; it has pretty much all the information you need on each trail.  

Bear in mind that the best views in the Smokies must be worked for. Most people find gaining several thousand feet in a day difficult to do even without a backpack. I would recommend considering this carefully if you want these first timers to ever go again. :)

That being said, one of my personal favorite trail sections in the park is the east side Appalachian Trail (the At runs the length of the Smokies crest) from I 40 to New Found Gap. The views of this section can be awesome in good weather. (remember it’s not called the ‘clear’ mountains). The section is hard to hike but could be started from Newfound Gap with a shuttle to avoid the biggest climb.

The crest of the Smokies has great views, but some drawbacks (in my mind) : you have to sleep in shelters rather than tents along the AT, it is well loved so you will not be alone, and if you do this in the spring you run the risk of hitting thru-hiker crowds (they tend to herd-up for some reason). One possibility would be hiking a loop that incorporates a section of the AT without keeping you on it the whole time. Pretty much any loop up and back will give you a good representation of all the different eco-zones in the park. I can suggest some specific ones if you want.

Another hike that can’t miss is the AT across Roan Mountain (upper east tn). This is best done with a shuttle and there is lots of information right there on Trailspace about it.

A third “can’t miss” option is Grayson Highlands in Virginia (south west). Again, lots of good information here about it.

To search for things on Trailspace forums you need to use an external search engine (google, bing, yahoo). For example, if you want to search for Smokies in the trip planning forum use this syntax:

Smokies site:



one thing to keep in mind with the Smokies (and along with other places), is how well you know your buddies....


this being a first trip for everyone but you could be a way to end a friendship or two........

keep it simple----keep it short............


Having gear is one thing, but I  would suggest some skills building for your first time friends before you go off on a multi day trip. Reading a book like Backpacking for Dummies or something similar will help, but practicing in a backyard or local park after that will let you know if they really know anything.

For example-

Do they know how to use a water filter to avoid getting sick from contaminated water?

Can they read a map and use a compass?

If you have a GPS, do they know how to use it?

Can they put up the shelter you are taking?

Do they know basic first aid?

Do they know how to use your stove and know how to cook whatever you will be taking?

Do they understand how to layer their clothes to stay warm without overheating and know what to take or not take (no jeans or cotton hoodies, for example, except for the ride down and back)?

There's more but this would be a good start. If everyone is relying on you and you get hurt or sick or someone gets lost, you will have a problem if you are the only one who knows what to do.

We are going to do a little training session before we go so everyone is on the same page, and I can teach them a little something about backpacking. It's a smaller group, and we all love the outdoors (2 of the guys going grew up in rural Kentucky), so it isn't as bad as I made it sound. 

I really like the idea of having day hikes in Savage Gulf. I think day hiking for beginners is great way to get your feet wet. We are going to get there on a Saturday in the morning, enough time to hike to a camp on the trails. Which side has the most to offer? With it being so early in the year, i would imagine that there won't be any vegetation to look at. Assuming it rains (march has the most precipitation in the year according to the website), i think waterfalls and walking on the ridges of the plateau area would be the things to think about when choosing a route. 

it seems like the starting at the savage gulf ranger station on the west side has more trails and camping sites for us to explore, but I could be totally wrong. 

Thank you everybody for the help!


Edit: I saw a picture of the Cumberland Caves and that seemed like something worth looking into as well.. any info on this?

Here is the link to the official Savage Gulf PDF download of the trail map & lots of info on the trail system, average temps & rainfall per month, etc.

You can see in this topo map below how steep some of the canyon walls are.


i echo trouthunters love of the south cumberland savage gulf area. been there a few times and love it. nothing too difficult, so it will be pretty laid back. i love the smokies too, but they are a more difficult hike (higher elevation change). really, honestly, those are mostly the two places i go when i go hiking. check out my trip reports to see a couple trips to savage gulf. 
 love this trail map, marks several view spots.



November 25, 2020
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