The Great Stone Door "Adventure Run"

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David Horton

On Saturday, January 9, I traveled to Beersheba Springs (about 50 miles NW of Chattanooga, TN) to participate in Gary Cantrell's new adventure run…The Great Stone Door (20,30, or 50 miles). Gary was doing this run for a possible full race in 2000. There were only seven of us who showed up. Maybe this was due to all of the bad weather around the country. When I left Lynchburg, it was sleeting and there was 1-2" of ice covering the road.

It rained all day Friday and most of Friday night. We all met at the Savage Gulf Campground. Gary had devised several loops that would take us over and around, and through several different gulfs. You could look from one rim across a deep canyon to another rim. Dewayne Satterfield and I took off on a very cold morning. The rain had stopped and light snow started to fall shortly after we began. Ann Riddle, Joe Riddle, Eliza MacLean, and two of her friends followed closely behind us.

After running several miles on the North Rim, we dropped down into a deep canyon. Much to our surprise, the stream crossing was a rushing torrent. Luckily, there was a huge tree that had fallen most of the way across the stream. We crawled across the tree…but still got wet. A couple of miles later, we came upon another stream…that did not have a tree. Dewayne and I waded across the stream…just below waist deep. A couple of miles after that, we came upon an even bigger stream…probably class II or III rapids…impossible for us to cross. I suggested that we bushwack upstream to find a less life-threatening place to cross. What did we find…even swifter water. Our only choice was to go back and run one of the loops around another gulf.

After re-crossing the last stream…above our waist by now, we met Joe, Ann, and Eliza. They had tried to do the loop we were going to do. They were turned back by very swift and deep water as we were.

We all returned to the start together, on the South Rim Trail. We passed some spectacular bluffs, rushing streams, beautiful waterfalls, with great views of the gulf.

We covered somewhere around 25 or 30 miles…give or take. Was it an adventure…yes. It was one of the most unique, spectacular, and challenging areas I have ever seen. There were downed trees…(Barkley training), extremely rocky areas, lots of deer, beautiful streams and vistas. This would be a great setting for an ultra…I'm not sure about the stream crossings!!! Read Gary's description below about the Savage Gulf Area.

About Savage Gulf- The Cumberland Escarpment is 100 foot elevation between the Highland Rim Plateau at the bottom, and the Cumberland Plateau at the top. This veritable wall of rock begins deep in Alabama, and runs Northeast across Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky. The flat Plateaus are formed by hard layers of Sandstone (Cumberland) and Chert (Highland Rim), which do not erode easily, sandwiching 1000 feet of porous limestone, which does. In between, the Escarpment is an extremely steep slope topped by 100 - 200 feet of sheer rock face. Where creeks and rivers cross the escarpment, they drop off high waterfalls into deep gorges cut into the Cumberland Plateau, these gorges are called "Gulfs" locally.

About 1/3 of the way across Present day Tennessee, three such Gulfs combine into a single exit to form the Collins River. Somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago (depending on whose dating you believe), the first American Immigrants discovered a unique feature of the southernmost of the three Gulfs. The Rock bluff topping the escarpment had separated, leaving a crack about 10 feet wide that went all the way to the top. Rock inside formed a "stairway."

Pre-European North America had a thriving trade in the materials of stone age technology. And much of the trade between present day Florida, Georgia, Eastern Alabama, the Carolina's, and the Central part of the continent was funneled thru this tiny crack in the cliffs. As a result, the Collins River Valley, a backwater today, was a bustling culture, and a commercial center. Artifacts are incredibly abundant, almost none made from locally native materials.

After literally tens of thousands of years of use, it was only natural that the European settlers would follow this same route for the first stagecoach road connecting these regions. Of course, the gap the first settlers had named the "Great Stone Door" was unsuitable for wheeled traffic, so the stagecoach road was diverted to the central of the three Gulfs, and a descent cut into the side of the mountain. In the 1800's, when the first modern road was built, along with railroads, these passed over (& through) the mountains about 20 miles to the south. After more than 10,000 years, the Collins River gateway, the Great Stone Door, fell into disuse.

Inaccessibility protected tiny pockets of virgin forest in these Gulfs, when the rest of the Escapement was logged, and the Savage family who owned the entire area preserved it from other development. Eventually, all three Gulfs, and the surrounding Plateau, was put under the protection of the state, and named the Savage Gulf Natural Area. Small Developed areas at the head of the northernmost Gulf, and at the top of the Stone Door itself, accommodate sightseers and rock-climbers. A network of about 90 miles of well-maintained trail (most of it little used) affords opportunities for backpackers and hikers. Other than that, the area is pristine.

Besides the Rock Bluffs, attendant overlooks, and numerous waterfalls, other natural wonders include rivers which run in & out of caves all the way down the Gulfs, probable (in January) spectacular ice formations, the most diverse deciduous forests in the world, and more rocks than seem possible in any one place.

About the trails-Basically, the trails the race is concerned with consist of 3 loops, a 15.8 miler around the entire Rim of the North Gulf (Savage), an 11.5 miler around the North Rim and bottom of the Central Gulf (Collins), and a 7.2 miler around the South Rim and bottom of the Southern Gulf (Big Creek), along with a 6.7 mile connector across the common Valley. All of our climbs will be at the steep Western end, and all our descents will be the longer slower ones from the East. On the Rims, the trail is usually close to the cliff, often right on it. It is a place to exercise due caution. The ascents will be short, but steep and rocky. The Gulf bottoms are mostly rocky, but the trails are well defined, marked, and easy to follow. Basically, the layout should lend itself to very fast times assuming that the runner is sure-footed, and daring.

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