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Angel Falls Overlook Trail, TN

Updated: Oct 4, 2022


We’re two miles from the end of Grand Gap Loop and hobbling. My husband Logan capitalized on a characteristic burst of energy and disappeared more than an hour ago, while Logan's buddy Josh, my sister Danielle and I learn our speed, not just our survival packs, renders us kin to the forest’s snails. The sun is setting, but the only orange thing we see is a fluorescent fungus, a gorgeous specimen overflowing with folds that fall to the path.

I pause to take a photograph, but the group consensus is heavily implied: don’t stop. Keep moving. Pretend you’re not almost out of water, that your head isn’t splitting, and that you’re not on your tenth mile in eight hours in hiking boots that have never! given you blisters until now.

This isn’t life or death, but it’s something. It’s a labored limbo, a transience measured by steps and punctuated by pain. The destination is where we first departed, and with every readjustment of my backpack to release the tension I ask myself, why?

 

It’s nearly 12:30 p.m. when Logan, Josh, Danielle and I pull up to the Leatherwood Ford parking lot just minutes inside the west entrance of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Tennessee.

Our packs are loaded, stuffed full of dehydrated meals, headlamps, a rapid boiler, fire starter, a DSLR camera with zoom lens, utility knives, tents, sleeping pads, impressively small sleeping bags, a change of clothes, flip flops, first aid kits, tape, wilderness wipes, rope, field guides, super absorbent towels, inflatable pillows, biodegradable toilet paper and a tiny titanium shovel, hand sanitizer, collapsible dishes, sporks, trekking poles, a water filtration device, and three liters of water each plus extra bottles.

After adjusting our packs, we cross the highway bridge and descend down swampy steps toward the Angel Falls Overlook Trail. The trail gets its name from a class III/IV rapid called Angel Falls in the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River that resulted from an unregulated 1954 blast to make the original Angel Falls, a 10-12 foot forked waterfall, more navigable for boating and fishing.

“Ugh,” Logan exclaims suddenly, and motions down to his tennis shoes. “My hiking boots!”

“You’re probably gonna wanna get those, huh?” says Josh. He’s donning an orange Gregory pack loaded with old-school camping gear and yoga mat in lieu of pricier, lightweight alternatives.

Logan shortcuts across the broken footbridge back to the car as I grow acutely aware of the load on my shoulders. I know Danielle’s pack is heavier, and Josh and Logan’s are double the weight of mine; but I’m also the smallest among us, perpetually underweight and, as Logan likes to say, “with a delicate constitution.”

During this trip’s planning stages, I had to convince Danielle that we’d be okay. But now I’m watching her pragmatism turn optimistic as my quintessential idealism takes a back seat to pessimism: this trip will be easier than she thought; for me, it will be more difficult.

 

The first part of the trail is a sandy, silty path bordering the gently flowing river. The abundant green drips with humidity as butterflies flutter and perch on bending branches and buds. The wildlife crawls from pockets of leaves and branches and slithers across the path. First we see a small black snake, then a hollowed turtle shell the size of Logan's thumb, then a Western Toad, then what could be an adolescent cottonmouth weaving shapes in the low creek.

Nothing here is still for very long, or useless in the way of manmade trinkets; trees serve a purpose even felled. We watch millipedes glide down decaying logs and find each other in the sand, curled together, rigid, before one flees from the second and I squeak "Fredadine, come back!" and at once earn the trail name Fredadine Millipede.

After more than an hour of hiking in the lowlands, we arrive at the base of the 400-foot vertical climb, a series of switchbacks with a couple offshoots to campsites. The direct path is closed due to a broken foot bridge, so a weathered “Reroute” sign posted on a tree points us in a new direction: across the riverbed and up a steep, silty incline. But to get to the riverbed, we must pass through someone’s camp.

The men at the camp are friendly and inquisitive, possessing the easy-going nature of fellow hikers. Between sips of beer, they tell us this is their first time in Big South Fork and their second night camping. I ask whether the relatively flat 6.8 mile Grand Gap Loop on the ridge past the overlook is worth the walk, more for curiosity than resolve: we’re going regardless.

Their hesitations center only on two things: the absence of a water source and uncertainty regarding backcountry camping sites. We paid $5 to reserve a backcountry site on the Pay.gov website two weeks prior to the trip, but online guides had only mentioned a few camping spots, and none of them were on the Gap Loop.

The spot we’d call home for the night would be on the descent, under a rocky overhang with a campfire pit. The men hadn’t mentioned this spot, or else they knew better than to camp there: heat from the fire can expand trapped water and crack the rock. The National Park Service prohibits hikers from camping within 25 feet of rock shelters or caves, but we didn't know that at the time, nor could we have reached the lower campsites by nightfall. Logan had optimistically told the men his 45-pound pack felt a lot lighter than he thought it would, but as the sun set, the pack grew into a giant sore, and he dropped it onto the rocks as he waited for the snails to slide around the corner and Fredadine Millipede's small, tired voice to say, "Babe?"

 

I throw off my pack and nibble on beef jerky when we come to a false summit, a large slab of rock stacked neatly with towers of stones. Today's conscious hiker is urged to avoid building these cairns except for navigational purposes because they can distract from a place's natural beauty and disrupt the environment, especially in areas sensitive to erosion. The ethos is commendable but clearly not ubiquitous. The stones serve not so a functional purpose here as a philosophical one. The end is nigh, they seem to say, but the journey is now—remember to stop and breathe.

I sit cross-legged between the piles of stones, too exhausted to search for a spot where I can fully stretch my legs. I gulp lukewarm orange vitamin water and rub my shoulders, which pulse with the heat of freshly ruptured blood vessels. Nearby, Josh and Logan explore the first of many rocky overhangs, fascinating features that hide pockets of darkness and cool air.

After our snacks, we continue the last leg of the journey up to Angel Falls Overlook. The stint includes a circumnavigable wooden ladder, a hiker’s tool Danielle considers not so much accommodating as daring.

“That was so scary, I thought I was going to fall backward with my pack on and then be like a turtle stuck on the ground!” she exclaims.

I can feel a burning sensation in my throat, which portends the brutal cold and fever that will strike within hours of our Nashville return. For now, I focus instead on the unwelcome turning of my bowels. There's no flushing in the woods, only digging, the primal, humbling act of axing roots and excavating dirt, deeply, after which I navigate to the overlook for a gratifying view.

The vista here is one of many found in the 125,000 acres of the Big South Fork National Recreation and River, a diverse and vast expanse of sandstone bluffs, cascading falls and river sewn in verdant valleys. The park sits atop the Cumberland Plateau, which stretches from northern Alabama and Georgia across Tennessee to Kentucky and is home to the world's longest expanse of hardwood forests.

The plateau suffered exploitations in the 1800s and 1900s from logging and coal mining and remains a region of interest for energy-hungry corporations, especially with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s quiet approval of HB571 in the 2018 session. The new law transfers regulation of surface coal mining from the federal government to the state, a move decried by environmental organizations who fear the rules will speed up the permit approval process and catalyze reckless strip mining. Prior to the law, Tennessee had been the sole coal-producing state still regulated by the federal government.

Although coal seams can be seen elsewhere in Big South Fork, Angel Falls Overlook is pristine, offering a perfect panorama of the winding Big South Fork river hugging mountains of green.

 

After our shoeless sojourn on slabs of stone, we set off to the Grand Gap Loop. I suggest we check it out and turn back when the group decides, but after two miles we're almost halfway there, and once we reach halfway there's no point in turning back. Our overestimation of speed is our downfall, "almost there" turns out to be 30-, 40-minute blocks of time, and during the last few miles we languish.

The wooden sign signaling the end of Grand Gap Loop feels like an island in the sea at dusk, a refuge. But we still haven’t made it to camp, and we don’t know where camp is. We’re sailors again, chasing the winds and the sinking sliver of sun.

We pass rocky outcrops and descend down the wooden ladder. Features that were once novel already feel familiar—everything does, when you’re going home.

We round a bend and I at last see the flag of my spouse. Logan’s royal blue Columbia performance fishing gear shirt hangs heavy with sweat over a branch of a tree as Logan walks around shirtless, glistening in the dusk. He helps us remove our packs and hands us buffalo jerky, then promptly unloads the tent and sleeping bags.

Josh straps on a headlamp and takes his water purifier to a nearby rock wall that trickles with a cold stream. Logan starts a fire and boils Josh's fresh, purified water to pour in our dehydrated food packets. I rescue a slug from the hot wall near the fire and spread tuna on crackers with the smallest spoon. I fork the now-cooked Three-Cheese Chicken Pasta into my mouth, relieved the slimy chicken is actually zucchini. I can’t finish it all and fold the leftovers tightly in a Ziploc bag that we then lock in our hefty blue Bear Vault, an $80 purchase meant to suppress black bear-enticing odors.

After dinner, I venture off from our campsite to slide shower wipes over my bug-bitten body. The darkness is cumbersome and unforgiving, relieved only by the dull shine of my Coleman light. I stand naked in the middle of the trail and notice the peculiar thump of my heart, a rapid pace that reveals my vulnerability. I am no longer in my home, with walls and doors, but ours—a nearly infinite expanse of valleys and cliffs and mountainous paths. Society is contained in buildings and houses and cars, but the woods are wide open, even when they're closed in. The whole world could be watching, millions of eyes that don’t look like mine. And what would they see, predator or prey?

 

Back at the campsite, I watch the fire’s flames rise modestly. I think of my journal that remains untouched in a gallon-size Ziploc bag. I expected to write about the catharsis of (semi) solitude and forever-walking on my first backpacking trip, but my body is tired and so is my mind.

And so I don’t explore these philosophies and ideas, not tonight. I don’t think about materialism and workweek routines, the corporate world and the American Dream. I think instead of the snakes, the lizards, the riverbed nestled in green, the endurance that propels the body even when it blisters. I think of the cliffs, the caves, the creatures stirring in the leaves.

They're always there.

But spotting the wildlife feels serendipitous and urgent, like I need to see more, like I never may again.

This is the magic of journeying, the vast unknowing except of one thing: that it won’t soon be forgotten.

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