Foster Falls is one of Tennessee's most spectacular waterfalls, plunging 60 feet into a deep gorge surrounded by some of the most challenging hiking and climbing in the state. Once its own small recreation area, the falls are now an integral part of Tennessee's largest state park system. Comprised of nine discreet tracts totaling nearly 30,000 acres, South Cumberland State Park stretches out across several distinct areas including Foster Falls, Savage Gulf State Natural Area, Fiery Gizzard Trail, Grundy Forest State Natural Area, Grundy Lakes, Denny Cove, 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, acres of blooming azaleas, and numerous waterfalls, of which Foster Falls is the tallest.
Foster Falls | 0.50 Miles
Climbers Loop | 2.0 Miles
Foster Falls Recreation Area Map | South Cumberland State Park
Foster Falls Recreation Area | Google Maps
The entrance to Foster Falls is located along State Highway 41 in Sequatchie County, a short 45 minute drive north from Chattanooga. Visitors to the recreation area who are keen on camping can reserve one of the 26 campsites surrounding the large pavilion and restroom facilities. Those looking for something a bit more rugged can opt for one of 93 backcountry campsites spread throughout the park. Turning into the park entrance, just past the entrance into Denny Cove which we will visit later, the drive into Foster Falls follows a half mile gravel road until reaching the large parking lot.
The trail to the falls starts along a short boardwalk traversing a small sandy bluff covered in wildflowers, which leads to one of three overlooks of Foster Falls. This trail is considered strenuous, even for the short 0.5 mile duration that it takes just to reach the falls area. So if you’re not into hiking, this is as close as you’re going to get. Trail Maps for Foster Falls with trail length and points of interest are hard to come by.
Thats because most visitors might not be aware that the trail system surrounding the falls is actually part of the southern point of the Fiery Gizzard Trail. This 12 mile out and back trail starts in Grundy Forest S.N.A. and traverses through waterfall laden forests atop a deep gorge created by Big Fiery Gizzard Creek and ends at Foster Falls. Its considered one of the Top 25 Hiking Trails in the U.S. by Backpacker Magazine and should be on every serious backpackers bucket list along with the nearby hike to MacRae Peak.
Just past the falls overlook the trail begins its descent down a dry creek bed filled with ankle twisting terrain that would give most people a sprain just thinking about it. The going is slow here as one has to measure every step carefully while skipping from stone to stone. About a hundred yards from the start, we travel through a gap atop a steep hillside to discover a sizable rock shelter hidden right beneath us.
Several small streams pour over the top of the formation, creating numerous wet weather waterfalls. This seems to be a spot people commonly stop to explore while they take a break from the climb back up from the falls. The horseshoe shaped ridge extends for quite a ways and you could spend a chunk of the afternoon exploring just this area.
Its not long before we can see the Fiery Gizzard suspension bridge through the trees, sitting at the bottom of the canyon. Reaching this feature you’re met with an unbelievable view of Foster Falls in the distance, just begging to be explored. The falls plummet 60 feet into a large natural pool bordered by a rock strewn beach from end to end. Most visitors are drawn to take a dip in the cool refreshing waters, even if they had not planned to. This place is one of the hidden gems you stumble upon and can’t decided between wanting to keep it a secret all for yourself or tell everyone about.
Little Gizzard Creek plummets over the top of Foster Falls and flows right below our feet until it eventually empties into Big Fiery Gizzard Creek just south of here. The colorful origins of that name is surrounded in much debate. Historians believe the term “Fiery Gizzard” was coined during the mid 19th century when Tennessee Coal and Railroad Company first opened its iron smelting furnace in the heart of Grundy Forest. First time visitors to the furnace would stare in disbelief at the billowing smoke and steam generated from the white hot stream of molten iron being smelted in the furnaces. Tales of folklore tell a slightly different story stating that the name derives from Davy Crockett burning his tongue on a sizzling hot turkey gizzard while camping in the area.
For some this is typically the end of their journey in Foster Falls, but not for us. Theres more to see here besides the falls. The Climbers Loop Trail surrounding the sheer cliffs of Foster Falls are filled with not just some of the best climbing in the area, but also contain some challenging terrain leading to the upper ridges of the falls worth hiking to.
The 2 mile loop starts right here at the falls and navigates the rock strewn cliffs above Little Gizzard Creek, joining up with the southern end of the Fiery Gizzard Trail. There are several exit points that lead from the trail, up onto the ridges which loop back to another bridge crossing and 2 overlooks of Foster Falls, before ending at the main trailhead where we started.
Leaving the falls we follow the route leading up to the base of the towering cliffs just past the suspension bridge to our left. The creek is packed with people playing in its shallow stream, chasing frogs and skipping stones along its surface. Theres a refreshing minty smell in the air from the freshly budding hemlocks all around us. Portions of this trail, in addition to the Fiery Gizzard Trail, travel through a unique ecosystem known as a hemlock cove forest. They occur mainly in sheltered, low elevation sites with narrow rocky gorges. Hemlock Cliffs and Turkey Run State Park in Indiana are prime example of this. Its like taking a journey through a boreal forest in the upper reaches of Canada, without having to leave the sunny weather of the Southeast.
As the trail gains elevation, we lose sight of the creek and begin entering several of the numerous rock houses and small caves all along this 0.7 mile route. The fragile limestone making up the cliffs above our heads, known to easily weather and create beautiful rock formations is a magnet for rock climbers. Foster Falls is a major destination for sport climbing in the Southeast. People travel from all over the U.S. and Canada each year to test their skills on the challenging bluffs. With over 150 established routes, ranging from beginner friendly 5.5’s and 5.7’s to more difficult 5.13 and 5.14’s, there something here for every level of experience climber. Permits to climb are required and can easily be obtained by contacting the South Cumberland State Park Office.
The cliffs were crawling with climbers today. Maneuvering over some of the natural obstacles was challenging enough, but we also had to take into account that we weren’t the only people on the trail. We would occasionally pause and double check that it was clear to pass in areas were climbers were directly overhead. Climbers are a rowdy bunch of folks and I had a blast making conversation with several groups. Not only where there people here from all over the U.S., but some had traveled here all the way from Spain and Germany.
There are three exits numbered 1-3 that allow access to the cliffs along the Climbers Loop. Having had enough of hiking over the perilous rock piles and sustaining a few twisted ankles, we opted to take the first exit out from the lower trails to the upper ridge. The wooden signs are a bit sneaky and sometimes hidden behind some overgrown brush so keep your eyes peeled for them. Catching sight of Exit 1, we veered right on the small dirt path towards the face of the cliffs and began the climb up to the ridge. Without the signs to point the way, you would never know the trail is even here. The way up is steep, so steep in fact that it comes close being a near vertical climb at the last stretch. Squeezing between large boulders, getting on all fours and even grabbing onto anything that can help propel us upward, we reach the top.
Taking a break from the climb on the bald ridge, we soaked in a nice view of the canyon below, if only for just a few moments. The trail continues a short distance before coming to a T intersection. This is part of the Fiery Gizzard Trail. If you turn left, you’ll be hiking 12 miles north to the Grundy Forest. It’ll be an incredible hike, but not the one you intended to take if you just want to loop back to Foster Falls. At the intersection make a RIGHT turn to head back to the falls parking area.
The landscape up on the plateau is totally different from that found deep in the canyon. The tougher sandstone making up the cap of the Cumberland Plateau is less porous and known to create special communities of high elevation seep bogs. Walking underneath the airy canopy of birches and pines, several stretches of wood boardwalks traverse beds of wetland ferns, sedges, forbs, and mosses. Its not at all what I would expect to encounter. A short stretch past the Father Adamz Campground entrance, we step out onto a bald, sandy ridge directly overlooking Foster Falls.
The view is spectacular. With an unimpeded line of sight of the falls, one could sit up here all afternoon and just watch the water flow. There are no rails here so take extra precaution when getting close to the edge, as an accidental dip into the falls is not completely out of the question. For some, thats entirely why they traveled here in the first place. Cliff jumping at Foster Falls has become a popular past time, attracting dozens of dare devils each year. Though strictly prohibited, it has not stopped thrill seekers from taking on the challenge.
Finishing up the loop, the trail begins to descend from its highest point down into the Little Gizzard Creek ravine. Walking across the steel bridge spanning the creek through this serene woodland scene, onlookers would find it hard to believe that this stream plummets 60 feet just up ahead. The last overlook on our loop is the most popular jumping point for cliff divers. Its roped off with steel wire for practical purposes as the cliffs edge is quite slippery.
Views of the falls basin and pool are unmatched from here. Take in the last glances of Foster Falls as this is the end of the Climbers Loop and the Fiery Gizzard Trail. In just a few short minutes, we emerge from the woods and land back on the sandy bluffs near the trailhead. While some of the folks we talked to at the start of our journey quoted us a 2 hr trip, we managed to hike the 2.50 mile trail in just under one hour.
Thats not bad considering there was a 291 feet of elevation gain. Nevertheless, the beauty of the area has me charged up so we are leaving here and driving 5 minutes south back down Highway 41 to check out Denny Cove. Stay tuned for our upcoming hike to Denny Cove Falls in the newest parcel of South Cumberland State Park. Until next time, see you on the trails!