Trail: Northrup Falls
Trailhead: Colditz Cove
Distance: 1.3 miles
Elevation Gain: 111 ft.
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 the off-trail Bandy Creek Falls.
Northrup Falls isn’t in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. Instead, it is the crown jewel of the 165-acre Colditz Cove State Natural Area just east of 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. The 2017 version of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge introduced hundreds of people to Northrup Falls and Colditz Cove for the first time.
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 that was designed 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 just over 1.3 miles. It is a mostly level hike, and relatively easy, although entering and exiting the gorge can be a bit tricky.
This hike, the fourth of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge, is the first repeat trail from either of the two previous hiking challenges presented by the Independent Herald. And, at 1.3 miles with just over 100 feet of elevation change, it’s also one of the easiest hikes of the challenge, along with the trail to Buzzard Rock.
From an unpaved parking area at the trailhead, which is located on a rural country road southeast of Allardt, the hiking trail wanders through a mixed oak forest 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 is sheltered by the waterfall, 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. It’s a quick, easy hike…and one that will leave you wanting to return once warmer weather arrives.
Getting There: Take S.R. 52 west from Robbins for 17 miles to Allardt. Turn left onto Northrup Falls Road (it’s the last road on the left before the “giant pumpkin” water tower in Allardt). In 1.3 miles, look for the trailhead on the right. It’s a 35-minute drive from Oneida.
Make It Better: There is no way to extend the hike, but you can take a little extra time to enjoy the scenery around the south end of the Big South Fork NRRA. On your way back, detour into Rugby and take some time to explore the historic village, perhaps even stopping for dinner at the Harrow Road Cafe. Or return to Scott County by way of the Mt. Helen and Honey Creek communities by taking Mt. Helen Road to Honey Creek Road and back to Burnt Mill Bridge near Robbins.
Be Careful For: While Colditz Cove is kid- and pet-friendly, there are wooden footbridges that can be slippery when wet, and the area behind the falls is particularly muddy and wet. The trail is also poorly marked and can be somewhat difficult to follow at times, especially 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.
Remember To: Use the #20WeekHikingChallenge hashtag in your photos on social media, or email photos to email@example.com, 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 pack it in, please pack it out!