Elevation gain: 99 ft.
Trailhead: Colditz Cove State Natural Area
Almost as soon as you enter the hemlock forest that shrouds the Big Branch Creek drainage, you can hear the sound of Northrup Falls.
At 60 ft. tall and with a steady flow of water, Northrup Falls is one of the most impressive waterfalls anywhere in Tennessee, and out-ranks any other found in the Big South Fork region, with the possible exception of Yahoo Falls.
Northrup Falls isn’t in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, however. Instead, it is the crown jewel of the 165-acre Colditz Cove State Natural Area just outside Allardt in Fentress County.
If you’ve lived in this area for much of your life and have never been to Colditz Cove, you aren’t alone. Because it is small and isolated, this state-protected area is often overlooked in favor of the nearby Big South Fork and other natural treasures that dot the northern Cumberland Plateau.
But this ecologically-rich and -diverse area isn’t out of sight and out of mind because it isn’t worth exploring. In fact, it is one of the most under-rated features of the plateau region.
Big Branch Creek flows out of Allardt, the picturesque German settlement along S.R. 52 next door to Jamestown, and eventually empties into Crooked Creek, which in turn empties into the Clear Fork River at Peters Bridge. The gentle stream quickly changes in nature when it plunges 60 ft. into the craggy, narrow gorge at Northrup Falls.
The waterfall and the land surrounding it was established as the Colditz Cove State Natural Area in 1973, by an act of the Tennessee state legislature to protect 30 acres. Another 42.5 acres were added in 1984 when the Colditz brothers — Arnold and Rudy — made a donation to The Nature Conservancy. And, in 2001, the State of Tennessee purchased another 93 acres, more than doubling the size of the natural area.
The hiking trail that takes visitors to Northrup Falls is a combination loop and out-and-back hike, totaling 1.43 miles. It is a mostly level hike, and relatively easy, although entering and exiting the gorge can be a bit tricky.
From an unpaved parking area at the trailhead, which is located on a rural county road southeast of Allardt, the hiking trail wanders through a mixed oak forest that typifies the northern Cumberland Plateau, until it begins a slight descent along an unnamed stream that feeds into Big Branch Creek. The forest type changes quickly, with hemlock and white pine becoming the predominant species, and Northrup Falls soon comes into view.
At that point, the loop section of the trail begins. Take a right, following the loop in a counter-clockwise direction around the top of the waterfall and across Big Branch Creek. The trail eventually descends into the gorge, works its way through boulders and emerges at the waterfall.
The trail wanders into the rock house that the waterfall shelters, and behind the falls itself. The muddy ground can make for some slippery walking until the trail begins to climb up the rocks on the other side.
When the trail climbs out of the gorge, it is a short stroll back to the parking area.
At just over 1.4 miles, the Colditz Cove Loop Trail is the easiest hike of the 20-week challenge. If you’re discovering Northrup Falls for the first time, you’ll find it’s one of those places you’ll definitely want to return to once warmer weather arrives.
Be Careful For: Although there aren’t many hazards along the loop, there are wooden footbridges that can be slippery when wet, and the area behind the falls is muddy and wet. The trail is poorly marked and can be difficult to follow at times, particularly as it winds through the gorge.
Look For: As you wander through the hemlock forest that surrounds Northrup Falls, you can envision just how devastating the hemlock woolly adelgid infestation would be if it were able to gain a destructive foothold at Colditz Cove. As you hike, you’ll notice various signs of efforts to defeat the parasitic insect infestation, including the use of flagging, along with the small blue dots on the base of hemlock trees that have been chemically treated. As you approach the waterfall on the hike in, look for one of the largest white pines found anywhere on the northern Cumberland Plateau, intertwined with a large hemlock tree and towering over the trail.
Make It Better: If this were June instead of March, the best way to make the Colditz Cove hike better would be to take off your shoes and wade into the cool pool of water at the base of Northrup Falls. But since it’s late winter instead of summer and that isn’t an option, and because there are no ways to extend the Colditz Cove hike, your best bet to make this trip better is to detour on your way out and explore other country you’ve likely seldom seen. You can take Peters Ford Road to the Peters Bridge river access point along the Clear Fork River, detour into Historic Rugby for a tour and sight-seeing, or return to Oneida by way of the Mt. Helen and Honey Creek communities, which will take you through the Big South Fork NRRA and allow you connect to the Black Creek Crossroads and Mountain View communities near Robbins.
Remember To: Use the #20WeekHikingChallenge hashtag in your photos on social media, or email photos to firstname.lastname@example.org, along with the names of all members of your hiking party, in order to log your miles.
Don’t Forget: Obey the Leave No Trace ethic by “taking only memories, leaving only footprints.” If you packed it in, please pack it out!