Denny Coves 685 acres of pristine woodland contains some of the most challenging hiking trails and rock climbing that can be found in Central Tennessee. As one of the nine discreet tracts that make up South Cumberland State Park, Denny Cove is part of a larger network of recreation areas that includes Foster Falls, Savage Gulf State Natural Area, Fiery Gizzard Trail, Grundy Forest State Natural Area, Grundy Lakes, Carter State Natural Area (Lost Cove Cave), Sewanee Natural Bridge State Natural Area, Hawkins Cove State Natural Area, and Sherwood Forest. Twelve trailheads offer access to some of the most unique ecosystems in middle Tennessee filled with towering cliffs, sandstone arches, and hidden coves with numerous waterfalls.
Denny Cove Trail to Overlook | 0.45 Mil
Denny East | 0.85 Mile
Denny West | 0.25 Mile
Waterfall Trail to Denny Cove Falls | 1.0 Mile
Denny Cove Trail Map | South Cumberland State Park
Denny Cove Location | Google Map
Having finished up our hike along the Climbers Loop in Foster Falls, we decided to drive the 2 miles south along Highway 41 to explore Denny Cove. This small hidden gem is considered to have the best sport climbing in the entire Southeast and chances are you’ll run into more people climbing than hiking. Though most of its trail system is built to provide climbers access points to the bluffs, it does contain a short path to an overlook and a 1 mile trail to a magical waterfall known as Denny Falls.
Denny Cove Trail
Considering all of the trails are short and interconnected, its possible to hike all four in a span of 2 hours, for those wishing to explore the full depth of the cove. Leaving the gravel parking lot, we begin our journey on the Denny Cove Trail as we head towards the Overlook. The lot was packed with a dozen sprinter vans from a climbing event being held at the cove today. Its hard to tell from the flat expanse of serene woodland near the trailhead, but our hike will soon be descending into a deep cove filled with towering cliffs that are even bigger than the ones we encountered at Foster Falls.
We are drawn in further into the forest by the bright red blooms of royal catchfly all along the trails edge. Its mind boggling to think that before becoming a protected part of South Cumberland State Park, this land was owned by a foreign timber company. Due to the steep grade surrounding Denny Cove, timber companies were unable to clear cut this forest. Instead they took on the practice of hand selecting the largest specimens to extract, leaving much of the natural environment in tact and undisturbed. These steep valleys created by small streams known as coves still hide some of the oldest and largest tree stands in the region, including a 500 year old grove of hemlock trees in the Foster Falls area.
Denny West and Denny East
As we begin descending down into the cove, I can hear the sound of water growing louder by the second. Stepping down into this hidden landscape I can’t help but think that if Fern Gully was a real place, this might be it. The Denny Cove Trail ends at a magical wet weather waterfall trickling over the side of a cavernous rock shelter. To the right is the short path to an overlook. The view at this point is overgrown and difficult to see. Visiting during early spring and fall are your best chances of viewing the rolling hills and valleys of this beautiful landscape.
Heading back to the trail intersection, we find the small path leading down to Denny West. The trail along Denny East is generally thought to be too strenuous to hike and devoid of any significant points of interest unless you’re rock climbing. Climbers are even known to hike the waterfalls trail to a connecting path leading up to the cliffs just to save a little energy. Denny West on the other hand is a short 0.45 mile out and back, a bit less strenous, and travels through some interesting rock formations including several rock houses and shelters.
As with most places I visit with large shelters located near sources of water, I always wonder wether they were used by early cultures, even going so far as looking for bedrock mortars in the surrounding area. Not much is known about the history of Denny Cove, but a lot can be bestowed upon it by looking at the history of Grundy County as a whole. The area stretching from Monteagle, down to Chattanooga and east to the foothills of the Smokies, were at one point inhabited by the Chickamauga. This Native American tribe was once a part of the larger Cherokee Nation, but split from them around the time of the Revolutionary War.
While the greater Cherokee peoples sought to make peace with the Americans, a small band led by Chief Dragging Canoe wished to continue fighting white settler expansion. This led to a split where Dragging Canoe and his followers moved down from their mountain stronghold to create new settlements near the Tennessee River. The name given to them, Chickamauga, roughly translates to “dwelling place by the big water.” They traversed through the valleys and coves of this area mostly undetected by using the ancient Cisca Trail. This trail crossed much of Middle Tennessee, a stones throw from Denny Cove, all the way to St. Augustine, Florida.
This trail is very similar to the Climbers Loop in Foster Falls, with much of it covered in boulders and rubble. I caught a glimpse of several five-lined skinks roaming in between the rocks. These tiny creatures are common throughout Tennessee woodlands and often come out during the day to sun bathe on rock piles.While this trail may not appeal to most hikers, I enjoyed the extra bit of sighting and getting a chance to watch some very skilled climbers tackle the cliffs above. Denny West ends without much fanfare near the edge of a steep hillside, requiring us to double back the way we came.
Once we climbed back out of this area near the rock shelter at the end of Denny Cove Trail, we hung a hard right to commence the 1 mile Waterfall Trail to Denny Cove Falls. While this waterfall has been an often visited natural feature in the area, this trail has only been around for a few years. This obscure tract of land was mostly overlooked for decades until local climbers began exploring it in search of new climbing opportunities away from the crowded Foster Falls area. Upon discovering miles of pristine high quality cliff lines, they began to lobby local organizations in order to devise a long term plan to purchase the land. A coalition between South Cumberland State Park, The Land Trust for Tennessee, Southeastern Climbers Coalition , The Access Fund, and The Conservation Fund was brought together to raise the funds to purchase the 685-acre property.
After spending several months building trails and making road improvements, including building the expansive parking lot, the parcel was turned over to South Cumberland State Park and opened its doors to visitors in 2016. Denny East runs parallel to this trail just below the cliff line. Despite only seeing a handful of people, the trail was alive with distant chatter and laughter from climbers just on the other side of the forest. To the right of us the hillside drops down nearly 500 feet into a steep ravine carved out by Denny Cove Branch Creek. A few paths lead to rock outcroppings that overlook this vast cove.
This area is known for having an abundance of rare plant communities as well as being a haven for wildlife. One of the most striking plants we encountered were these tiny purple shamrocks. Their colors were so bold and striking against the rocky outcroppings that I couldn’t help but stop every few feet just to stare at them with bewilderment. Speaking of stopping, about halfway down the trail the path begins to traverse over some seriously technical terrain.
Large streams of boulder piles run the length of the hillside down from the cliffs creating rivers of rock that bisect this trail. It took a lot of stopping and going to get through these sections. These hills are home to rattlesnakes and copperheads that love to sun bathe atop the boulders here so keep an eye out while passing through this area. The Buffet Wall Access Trail appears on the left at roughly 0.75 miles down this trail. Its cliff line is known to have some of the best of the 150 climbing routes in Denny Cove.
Within a few feet of this junction I stopped to catch a breather after one of the many rock piles we had just traverse, when I glanced over to my right and caught a glimpse of a small arch in the ridge above us. I was so stunned by the discovery that I couldn’t help but stare at it in disbelief. It doesn’t appear to be much bigger than a foot and half tall by three feet wide. Despite a lengthy amount of research, I was unable to find any mention of it on any articles pertaining to Denny Cove.
Continuing forward we found the path in front of us washed away downhill thanks to a large sinkhole. Getting across required a slow walk akin to crossing a tight rope along a narrow path hugging the cliff on our right. One misstep and you’ll find yourself sliding down the steep embankment and into the ravine below. Just past this we encountered another washed out section of trail that forced us to jump several foot wide gaps to get across.
With the sound of rushing water getting louder and louder, we round a bend to spot the lower cascades of Denny Cove Falls. The deep gorge just below the falls hides several small caverns within the cove. We ran into several people climbing in and out of them, directing us towards the safest path down. Walking up to the base of the 70 foot tall Denny Falls, one can’t help but smile. This place has a serene and tranquil beauty to it. The large boulder positioned in the center of the natural pool below the falls is a popular place for picnics and quiet contemplation alike.
The wide girth and slow flow streaming down the sloping cliff resembles a miniature version of Burgess Falls in Burgess Falls State Park. Despite this trails difficult nature, feeling almost double its length due to its strenuous and technical sections, it was totally worth it to see this gorgeous waterfall. So sit down, relax, and take in all of Denny Coves natural beauty while you’re. To head back to the parking lot just head back the way you came to the Denny Cove Trail.
We have one more place to explore in South Cumberland State Park located about 20 miles away. The arch located at Sewanee Natural Bridge Natural Area is one of the largest in the state and has long been on my bucket list of arches to visit in the Southeast. Stay tuned for our next article and until next time, see ya’ll on the trails!