South Cumberland State Park is located just a short drive outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee. It includes 9 separate areas spread across four counties totaling over 30,000 acres. The park contains over 90 miles of hiking trails and is home to popular Foster Falls. According to a representative at the park office, peak visitation to the park is in the spring and fall, and the park has seen as many as half a million visitors per year in recent years. In this article I’ll tell you everything you need to know about hiking to Foster Falls, as well as discuss other items of interest at the park such as camping and climbing.
Hiking to Foster Falls in South Cumberland State Park
South Cumberland State Park is home to many beautiful waterfalls. Foster Falls, located in the Sequatchie County section of the park, makes for a popular place to spend the day due to its ease of access, and proximity to Chattanooga.
The falls are accessible from a short 0.4 mile out-and-back or a 1.6 mile loop trail for day trips. They serve as the ending point of the 12.5 mile Fiery Gizzard Trail, which starts at the Grundy Forest section of the park, and has been rated by Backpacker Magazine as one of the top 25 trails in the country.
The first time I did this trail I was with my husband and two children, aged 2 and 5, and we only went to the falls and back up. More recently I completed the loop with just my kids. My five year old walked the entire trail, and I wore my two year old on my back for the majority of it in order to make better time, although I think he would have been fine on all but a small section of rocks a little under halfway through.
If you are hiking with little ones, you may find this post on recommended child backpack carriers useful.
Know Before You Go
- To access the trailhead to the falls, park at the Foster Falls Small Wild area, located off US-41 just north of Jasper, TN. This is also the entrance for the drive-up campground.
- The falls are an impressive 70 foot free falling waterfall, into a gorgeous gulf below. While the gulf is a great place for wading and swimming, jumping from the falls is strictly prohibited.
- The trail is dog-friendly, though dogs must be on-leash at all times.
- Families with children will enjoy this trail. Very small children may need help on some the rocky areas, particularly on the descent into the falls.
- Heavy rains influence the rate of flow of the falls; if you are hiking when there has been a lot of recent rainfall, be aware of how quickly the water down Fiery Gizzard Creek will be moving if you choose to swim in the gulf.
- The park closes thirty minutes after sunset to day hikers/climbers. Plan to be back at your car in time to leave unless you are camping.
- Camping is by reservation only, although same-day reservations can be made.
Foster Falls Loop Hike
As new residents of Tennessee, my family found Foster Falls when looking for camping and hiking near Chattanooga. Though the areas of South Cumberland State Park are disconnected from each other and some are a considerable drive from the city, the Foster Falls Small Wild Area in Sequatchie County is only 45 minutes outside the city limits, and fit the bill for everything we were looking for: drive-up campsites, short trails our kids could handle, and a chance to get up close and personal with one of Tennessee’s incredible waterfalls.
On our first trip, as mentioned above, we opted to only hike to the falls and back up. I was lucky enough to get a break in the recent rains this week however to take my kids out to test the remainder of the loop trail for child-friendliess, and I am so glad to have completed this short section of such a beautiful state park.
If you are camping at one of the drive-up sites, there is a short spur that runs past site 8 that takes you directly to the loop trail. If you are only there for the day however, from the parking lot you’ll follow a wheelchair accessible bridge, and head left to a wooden overlook. Although the view of the gulf is obscured in the summer due to dense foliage, you get a clear view of the top of the falls, and can watch the sun set over the opposite ridge if you time it right.
From the overlook, continue south for around a hundred yards, to the sign pointing towards a white blazed trail that will take you to the base of the falls. The descent is steep from the beginning; trail crews have built a wooden staircase that ends next to a rock overhang, before the trail turns to the right and winds down a series of large rocks.
The rocks form stairs for much of this part of the trail, but careful footing is advised, especially if the rocks are wet. My two year old even enjoyed jumping down a lot of the larger steps (albeit with an iron grip on my hand the whole time).
After a 100 foot elevation loss, you will cross a suspension bridge to your left over Fiery Gizzard Creek, and end at the gulf at the bottom of the falls. If all you wanted to do is see the falls you can hang out here for awhile and swim, have lunch, or just take in the scenery before going back up the way you came, or to complete the 1.6 mile loop, follow the white blazes to the left of the suspension bridge.
From here, the trail briefly follows the creek, before curving to the right and hugging the base of the sandstone climbing bluffs. Due to the heavy rains the day before our hike, the rocks were slick and we didn’t see any climbers, but my kids loved the many streams of water flowing off the bluffs, and my five year old had fun playing on the large rocks along the trail.
After about half a mile you’ll cross a short rock scramble, and then take a sharp right turn up a set of stone steps that will take you to the top of the bluffs–we backtracked here twice, as it looks from the scramble like you’re heading the wrong way due to foliage blocking the steps up until you are almost on top of them. I imagine in cooler months once the leaves have fallen this will be easier to navigate, but there are no obvious blazes until after you start your ascent.
The climb takes you to the rim of the bluffs, and the junction with the Fiery Gizzard Trail. If you wish to continue on that turn left, or to complete the short loop and return to the parking lot, follow the sign that says “Exit 1” to the right. Take advantage of the incredible views from the rim, then head north along a wide, flat trail. At a little less than half a mile you will reach the Father Adamz Campground.
Follow the white blazes to the right to stay on trail, or take the blue blazes to the left if you want to check out the campground–we opted to explore the campground as it was unoccupied, and my five year old has already requested a camping trip there, as she was highly impressed with how flat and open the sites are.
When the blue blazed spur reconnects the trail narrows again, winding back towards the trailhead. Cross another bridge over the upper creek, then turn to the right and head back to the parking lot, taking advantage of a few more overlooks of the falls as you go.
Even if you aren’t interested in hiking, the falls themselves are worth the drive to Sequatchie. The descent into the gulf is steep, but overall the falls are a big payoff without a lot of effort. Having camped the night before on our first trip there, we trekked down early in the morning and had the gulf to ourselves. The kids waded in the pool, and we enjoyed a snack while listening to nothing but the pounding water.
As the day wore on we saw other day-hikers and climbers headed down, so be prepared to see a lot of other people the later in the day it gets. Also, if you have children with you, South Cumberland State Park asks that you not bring floaties or other pool paraphernalia so as to maintain the natural atmosphere for everyone who is there to enjoy the falls.
Although a short hike, there are stretches on both the descent to the falls and along the base of the rock climbing bluffs that are extremely rocky. Sturdy shoes with good traction are highly recommended, and if there has been recent rain, expect a lot of run off along the lower part of the trail.
And while the Fiery Gizzard Trail is wide when you first connect and start heading back north towards Father Adamz Campground, the trail narrows to singletrack. So wear pants if you are sensitive to vegetation.
On both of my trips to this area we have seen several huge spiders. Based on their body type and webs I would guess orb weavers, although they always scramble away before I have a chance to get a good loo. They like to build their webs across the trail. Keep an eye out, especially if you have small children who may be fearful of them.
If you are only planning to hike to the falls it makes a great spot for a picnic, but please remember to follow Leave No Trace practices, and pack out everything you pack in! There is a lot of trash left behind on this trail, which detracts from the natural beauty of it. We always bring an extra bag to collect trash we find along the trail, which is a practice I recommend to all hikers.
Foster Falls Camping
There are three campgrounds near Foster Falls. The Foster Falls Campground does not have hook-ups, but is accessible by car. Each of the 26 sites has fire ring and picnic table, and several sites have gravel tent pads.
Potable water is available throughout the loop, and there are two bathhouses with electricity, flush toilets, and showers with hot water.
For primitive camping, there are two options available; Father Adamz Campground is .5 miles from the parking lot along the Fiery Gizzard trail heading away from the falls, with 8 hike-in sites plus a group site, and the Small Wild Campground is a hike-in loop with 6 sites, located 2 miles from the parking lot.
All camping requires advance reservations which are available through the Tennessee State Parks website, and prices range from $8/night for primitive sites to $18/night for drive-in sites.
Foster Falls Climbing
South of the falls, the loop trail winds past sandstone bluffs that boast one of the most popular climbing spots in the southern United States. With over 150 established routes, Foster Falls offers climbs ranging in difficulty from beginner to advanced, and according to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, attracts climbers from across the US and Canada.
Climbers should be aware that rappelling is prohibited at Foster Falls, as is jumping from the falls to the gulf below. If you are not planning to overnight at one of the campgrounds, you should also make sure your climb is complete in time to be back to your car before the park closes at sunset.
Who Would Enjoy Foster Falls?
This is a great trail if you are in or around the Chattanooga area and want a hike that doesn’t take the whole day. Just 45 minutes west of the city, it’s an easy drive, with options for any adventure level. The falls are spectacular, and the hike provides different rewards for different seasons–a swimming hole in the warmer months, and beautiful views once the leaves have fallen from the trees.
Families will enjoy this hike, even if they have very small children. It’s short enough not to be too taxing for little legs, and the falls, rocks, and trip past the primitive campsites offer preschoolers and older toddlers natural play spaces to hold their attention.
My only warning for young kids is that there are spaces where you have to walk on rocks that require large steps, or are spaced relatively far apart. If you opt for baby-wearing, be prepared to grab hold of the bluffs beside you on the ascent to the rim to keep your balance, and be on the lookout for spiders!
Dogs are allowed on this trail provided they are on leash at all times. As with the warning for children, there are areas that require larger steps. So be mindful of your pup’s comfort level with rock scrambles, steps, and bridges if you want to take them out.