The Cumberland Plateau, with its many exposed geological features from stone cliffs to curved arches to massive rockhouses, provides great contrast to our nearby Southern Appalachian Mountains, where great hardwood forests reveal little rock. Another advantage of the Cumberland Plateau is its many waterfalls that spill off its cliffs. One of my favorite cataracts is Greeter Falls, a signature feature at Savage Gulf State Natural Area.
Moreover, when you go to the Greeter Falls area, you can actually bag four waterfalls, visit an old homesite and frolic in a locally popular swimming hole, all in the course of a two-mile hike! Leave the trailhead near the Plateau village of Altamont to shortly join a spur trail leading to the Blue Hole, a big pool on Firescald Creek. Backtrack to the main loop then begin your waterfall tour, first reaching Upper Greeter Falls, a wide cascade, then Lower Greeter Falls, one of the most beautiful cataracts on the Cumberland Plateau.
The loop then visits hard-to-see Lower Boardtree Falls, then Upper Boardtree Falls before returning to the trailhead. Elevation changes are not drastic and the hike distance makes it doable by nearly everyone.
Furthermore, spring is an excellent time to visit water features in the Cumberlands, as the streams are flowing bold, adding drama to the cascades spilling from the tableland dividing East Tennessee from Middle Tennessee.
This hike starts on the Greeter Falls Loop Trail, bordered by pines and oaks. It isn’t long before you meet the Blue Hole Trail. Trace the Blue Hole Trail right and downhill. The rocky rooty tread is shaded by hemlocks, maples and holly, in addition to the ever-present pines and oaks.
The steady descent crosses a streambed by boardwalk, then travels over open rock slabs. The path steepens as it passes a small rock shelter to meet Firescald Creek at .5 mile. Firescald Creek flows most of the year but can dry up in late summer and fall. However, the Blue Hole will always have water. Boulders line the creek.
You have to walk downstream a bit before the natural swimming pool appears before you. Rock bluffs, evergreens and a sunning beach stand on the far side of the Blue Hole. Generations of local kids and families have come here to cool off in the heat of a Cumberland Plateau summer.
Backtrack to the Greeter Falls Loop Trail, turning right to shortly meet the spur trail leading left to the Greeter Homesite. The Greeter Family resided here in the late 1800s and early 1900s, lending their name to the nearby falls. A clearing surrounds the cut stone foundation and steps lead to what was a basement. The large, circular stone- lined well, where the Greeters got their drinking water, is now covered to prevent accidents.
At 1.1 miles, reach the actual loop portion of the hike, turning right toward Greeter Falls, sidling alongside a spring branch. The path cuts through a break in a bluff. Rock houses overhang the trail. The trail then runs along the top of one bluff and at the base of another. There is just a lot more rock in these hills than back in the woods near Johnson City.
Slip under a rock house, then reach a trail junction. Here, spur trails lead to Upper Greeter Falls and Lower Greeter Falls. We will visit Lower Greeter Falls first. This spiller pours 20 feet over a stone bluff, landing in a pool with a gigantic boulder in it. Lower Greeter Falls is a warm up for the superlative lower falls. Descend to a circular metal staircase, “the silver staircase” that takes you down a vertical bluff to solid ground below. More stairs and steps lead to the fall’s base, where you look out on a stone-walled amphitheater encircling a huge pool into which Lower Greeter Falls drops 50 feet. Stilled gigantic boulders complement the picture. Speaking of pictures, this setting begs a photograph.
Rejoin the main loop, continuing downstream along Firescald Creek, passing under giant overhanging rocks, reaching a low point at 1.3 miles. Turn left, northbound, uphill, into the Boardtree Branch watershed. Boardtree Branch is also rich with rock houses and bluffs. You’ll hear Lower Boardtree Falls, but the cascade is not visible from the trail. Hardcore waterfall fans can scramble through the junglesque vegetation to reach Lower Boardtree Falls. But remember, you then have to climb back out.
Come closer to Boardtree Branch, then reach Upper Boardtree Falls, tumbling in multiple stages. A short spur trail takes you to the middle of the falls, with a narrow drop above and a horseshoe spillover below. Just ahead, reach a trail junction. Here, the Greeter Trail leaves right to Alum Gap and the Stone Door Ranger Station. Stay left here, ascending stone steps to reach an old roadbed, which you follow back to the trailhead, with two more miles racked up on your hiking odometer.
To get to Greeter Falls from Whitwell, down toward Chattanooga, take TN 108 north for 22 miles to intersect TN 56. Turn right on TN 56 north and follow it to Altamont and intersect TN 50. From this intersection, stay with TN 56 north and follow it 1.2 miles to Greeter Pines Road. Turn right on Greeter Pines Road and follow it .6 miles to the trailhead parking, on your left. For more information about Greeter Falls, contact South Cumberland State Park, 11745 US 41, Monteagle, TN 37356, 931-924-2980, www.tnstateparks.com.