The Tallulah Gorge State Park wasn’t my first choice when planning my day of hiking, but it ended up being the best choice. I spent the morning driving the winding road to Anne Ruby Falls, only to find it closed. Determined not to be discouraged by Google Maps’ failure to provide accurate information, I decided to enjoy the fall leaves spinning from the trees and take the scenic route to the State Park.
Visiting Tallulah Gorge wasn’t on my hiking radar because I’ve been here before. Granted, the memories of these visits have long faded in the fifteen years since. Ultimately, I convinced myself it would be a fun day of nostalgia as I drove the leaf-covered road. I tried to recover any recollections that may have gathered cobwebs in my brain. Two fuzzy memories from my time here surfaced. The first was the steepness of the climb from the bottom to the top of the gorge, and the second was my dad making (dad) jokes and stopping to catch his breath every fifty feet.
Once I arrived at the Tallulah Gorge State Park, I pre-built a narrative of what to expect in my head. Spoiler, I was delightfully wrong about some aspects of the hike, and it turned out to be a great workout with stunning views from the bottom and top of the gorge.
Expectations: The Length of the Hike Wouldn’t be Long Enough.
A Park Ranger was nice enough to highlight the best way to navigate the trail with minimal backtracking. She was thorough when explaining the entire route was a little over three miles with steep stairs to the gorge floor. Three miles felt like a warm-up after hiking a ten-mile trail in Yellowstone just a few weeks ago. I worried I would need to find another place to explore to fulfill my entire day.
Reality: I’m A Slower Hiker When Alone
I started my activity timer and followed the rubber mulched path to the trailhead. The first few overlooks were a birds-eye view of the flowing Tallulah river below. Not feeling pressure to move quickly, I took my time taking pictures and enjoying the scenery. As I started to descend the stairs, it was hard to miss the line of people clinging to the handrails as they slowly began to climb out of the gorge. I’m sure I looked like the ghost of Christmas past bouncing down the stairs, eager to see the river up close. In contrast, my not-so-distant future was staring me in the face with a bewildered, breathless expression.
The lookout points gave anticipatory glimpses of the gorge floor. Once I arrived, I took advantage of the many areas to sit and watch the river flow over the rocks. The white water splashing in all directions became hypnotizing before complying with gravity and continuing on its path downstream.
Expectation: Steep Incline and Lots of Mud
When recalling those fuzzy memories of visiting the Tallulah Gorge as a child, I presumed the path was dirt and mud, quick to slide out from beneath you if you took your eyes off your feet. Slowly stomping up the trail, my feet collected tiny samples of soil until they felt like cinder blocks, making the seemingly vertical climb to the top impossible.
Reality: The Trail is Steep, but your Feet will Remain Dry.
I felt like I was on the movie set of the Swiss Family Robinson. The sturdy metal stairs leading to and from the gorge floor twisted and turned for a thousand feet. The thick wood guard rails held visitors upright and provided seated landings for refuge. After climbing as many stairs as I could without stopping, I met a deceivingly elastic bridge connecting the two sides of the gorge walls. If my legs were shaking enough from the stairs, steading my feet while crossing over from one side to the next was like the final boss in a video game.
My childhood memories could be playing tricks on me, but I felt like the trail was dirt with a few makeshift longs acting as steps. The addition of the modern metal and wood walkway allows the most inexperienced hiker to feel as if they can enjoy the outdoors. The mustard-colored leaves dotted the steps as I made it back to the top of the gorge. Even though my legs were cursing the endless stairs, I appreciated the elevated views through the trees.
Expectations: Quiet Serenity
Part of the allure of spending time in nature is the change in the sounds. Time slows down, and your senses heighten. I can hear a squirrel scampering across the forest floor from one tree to the next before my eyes can catch up. Rivers sound like distance static from miles away. I feel a great sense of peace the further away I am from a modern city and traffic chaos.
Reality: The Echo of Engine Breaking
The National Parks I’ve visited this year have spoiled me. The woods are so remote; if I stood still, the only sound I could hear was the sound of the wind moving leaves from the tops of the trees. While the Tallulah Gorge is an alluring park, the bridge crossing over the dam was a busy and loud highway. Semi-trucks and cars speed by, almost unaware of the river below. The switching sounds of air displaced my speeding cars bouncing along the gorge walls.
After conquering the gorge steps, the trail eventually passes under a highway bridge that parallels the dam. As I walked, I felt like a hitchhiker looking for a ride to the next town. I also became painfully aware that I was on the side of the highway alone, vulnerable to anyone passing by or not paying attention to the road. I’ve listened to too many true-crime podcasts to know this is not a good idea. Careful not to draw attention to myself, I moved to the other side of the bridge with purpose, back into the tree-covered State Park.
As I walked back to the Welcome Center, I checked my exercise app’s distance. I covered three and a half miles with just a few unintended turnarounds. The afternoon sun was lower than I thought it should be as I checked the time. Shocked at how late in the afternoon it had become. I was humbled by how tired I was from this underestimated trail.