Virgin Forest and Spring Wildflowers
Old growth forest, spring wildflowers and waterfalls are among the natural features awaiting hikers at Piney Falls State Natural Area on the Cumberland Plateau. Piney Falls is located in Rhea County where Little Piney and Soak Creeks have carved deep gorges into the Cumberland Plateau.
Covering some 440 acres of pristine forestland featuring mountain creeks, deep gorges, and waterfalls, Piney Falls is perpetually preserved and protected under the Tennessee Natural Areas Preservation Act of 1971.
Formally established as a State Natural Area in 1973, Piney Falls is one of 60 such State Natural Areas that today protect nearly 85,000 acres of Tennessee's most significant biological, geological, and scenic areas.
Piney Falls has also been recognized by the United States Department of Interior as a National Natural Landmark. The Secretary of the Interior established the National Natural Landmarks Program in 1962 to encourage preservation of this country's best remaining examples of its major biotic communities and geologic features. Piney Falls was formally recognized in 1974 as one of but 14 such National Natural Landmarks in Tennessee.
Perhaps most significantly, Piney Falls State Natural Area contains what has been documented as a virgin, or old growth, forest.
This stand of old growth forest was an important factor in its designation as both a State Natural Area and as a National Natural Landmark.
"From all accounts and from personal observations this isolated gorge of Little Piney Creek is one of those rare and few remaining stands of virgin timber, " stated Dr. Maurice E. Edwards, assistant professor of biology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in July of 1972. Edwards completed an assessment of Piney Falls for the National Park Service entitled Evaluation of Piney Falls, Rhea County, for Eligibility For Registered Natural Landmark.
"I had never seen such a magnificent natural stand of white pines," Dr. Edwards further observed. Some of the trees within the gorge are near 40 inches in diameter and over 100 feet tall.
Catherine Keever originally proposed the area for such consideration in her 1971 report, A Study of the Mixed Mesophytic, Western Mesophytic, and Oak-Hickory Regions of the Eastern Deciduous Forest. Today, Piney Falls remains one of the last old growth forests in Tennessee.
Little Piney Creek, which drains the majority of the area, has carved a deep, steep sided gorge through the area and features two beautiful waterfalls, Upper and Lower Piney Falls.
The upper slopes of this gorge exhibit a typical mixed mesophytic forest, while the lower slopes are dominated by hemlock-white pine mixed mesophytic forest.
Mixed mesophytic forests are among the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the United States and are characterized by a large number of co-dominant tree species including basswood, buckeye, maple, hemlock, and poplar, rich moist soils, and a high diversity of forest flora.
The surrounding upland forests are dryer and are composed mainly of a typical Cumberland Plateau oak-hickory forest with scattered southern yellow pines, especially along the gorge escarpments.
As with many Cumberland Plateau Natural Areas, waterfalls are a prominent feature and Piney Falls State Natural Area is no exception.
The Upper Piney Falls is very picturesque, falling uninterrupted for some 80 feet over an escarpment into a plunge pool at its base.
At the base of the falls softer bedrock has eroded away creating a concave ledge circling behind and around the falls. The visitor is able to follow a trail under this ledge and behind the waterfall for a perspective on the gorge below, particularly during periods of good water flow.
Farther down Little Piney Creek is Lower Piney Falls. Though of smaller stature, the Lower Piney Falls plunge some 40 feet into a much more narrow and steep gorge. From here, Little Piney Creek continues on, joining with Soak Creek before emptying into the Piney River.
Spring visitors to the area will see an abundance of wildflowers. These include the state listed Dwarf Milkwort; and more common wildflowers such as Little Brown Jug; Indian Cucumber; Yellow Wake Robin; Perfoliate Bellwort; Dwarf Crested Iris; spotted Geranium; Foamflower; Sharp-lobed Hepatica; Bloodroot; Rue Anemone; and Virginia Spiderwort; as well as Mountain Laurel and rhododendron along the creeks.
Very large hemlock, magnolia, Tulip-poplar, and White Pine trees will also be seen.
Many ferns, mosses, liverworts, and lichens may also been seen throughout the gorge on old decaying trees, rocks, and cliffs near the falls. This diversity in forest structure and composition creates a vivid contrast in colors, textures, scents and sounds, which awaken both the mind and soul to the beauty of these pristine river gorges.
Much of the land that today comprises Piney Falls State Natural Area was donated in 1959 by William Hilleary to William Jennings Bryan College in Dayton, so that it could be protected in its natural state for all times. In 1975, Bryan College donated that 186-acre tract to the State of Tennessee. In 1996, with the assistance of The Conservation Fund, William C. Hilleary donated an additional 231 acres to the state, and in 1997 donated another 28 acres. Today, Piney Falls State Natural Area covers some 440 acres.
Piney Falls is jointly managed by Cumberland Mountain State Park and the Tennessee State Natural Areas Program, both within the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
Recent improvements at Piney Falls include trail work and marking, a parking area and interpretive signage. The parking area was installed through a cooperative partnership with Rhea County Government.
For more information about Piney Falls State Natural Area contact Cumberland Mountain State Park at 931-484-6138, or call the State Natural Areas Program at 615-532-0431.
(Reggie Reeves is director of the Tennessee Department
of Environment and Conservation's Division of Natural Heritage.)
Piney Falls State Natural Area is located in north Rhea County, just north of Spring City on Walden Ridge.
Access is via Fire Tower Road, which leads southwest from State Highway 68 at Grandview. The trailhead is on the right, approximately 1.5 miles from the highway or 0.5 mile before you get to the Fire Tower, which is located at the end of the road.
From the parking area, the trail leads along an old dirt road to the top of the Upper Falls and back to the parking area. At the end of this dirt road, a smaller hiking trail to the left leads through the virgin forest to the base of the Upper Falls.
The Lower Falls is not accessible for viewing, however if one listens closely, the rush of water pouring over the cap rock can be heard in the distance. The trail is approximately two miles long.
Use extreme caution when hiking above and below the waterfall since the rocks can become wet or icy.
Updated March 1, 2001; Send comments to Department of Environment and Conservation.