The largest natural bridge in the southern section of the Cumberland Plateau occupies Monteagle’s mountainside, just an hour’s drive from Chattanooga, Tenn. Set within South Cumberland State Park outside of Sewanee, Tenn., the Sewanee Natural Bridge is a 25-foot sandstone arch that offers sweeping views of Lost Cove canyon.
Lost Cove is a landscape sculpted by water, and the small spring beneath the Natural Bridge most likely contributed to the erosion that created the arch.
“All of the streams in that area drain down to the bottom of Lost Cove and then go underground, emerging again as Crow Creek through the mouth of Buggytop Cave and then flowing into the Tennessee River,” explains South Cumberland Recreation Area Park Ranger Jason Reynolds.
The landscape bears witness to a legacy of human use, as well. A number of significant archaeological sites have been found within Lost Cove canyon, although there is no public access to these sites.
Vintage hand-colored postcards of the Sewanee Natural Bridge linger today in the antiques marketplace, attesting to the site’s popularity as a scenic waypoint since the days before the Civil War.
Reynolds has found engravings beneath the arch that date back to the 1880s. “I looked up some of the names that are carved in the rock, but I couldn’t find any local names,” Reynolds says, “so I think historically it has served as a roadside attraction, sort of like it is today.”
Remnants of a “spring catch,” where area residents collected water in the days before municipal water, can also be seen near the base of the Natural Bridge.
Erosion at the Natural Bridge is still taking place today and often reveals the discards of visitors from bygone days. “Whenever we get heavy rain, it disturbs some of the soil underneath the bridge and washes some of the sand away, exposing thick shards of glass from bottles and jars that date back to the days before the state managed the area.”
The Natural Bridge is easily accessed by a flight of stairs that leads from a small parking area off Hwy. 56 in Sewanee. While there are no trails segmenting off from the Natural Bridge, the area is a fun stopover point for picnicking and exploring before heading out to hike other sections of the South Cumberland Recreation Area, which preserves 25,000 acres in Grundy, Franklin, Sequatchie and Marion counties.
Popular hikes within the park include Savage Gulf, Stone Door, Grundy Forest, Hawkins Cove, Carter State Natural Area, Foster Falls and Grundy Lake. Another small natural bridge can be found near Ravens Point Campground within the park.
Five miles down the road from the Sewanee Natural Bridge is a two-mile trail (four miles roundtrip) to the mouth of Lost Cove Cave, aka Buggytop Cave, one of the Cumberland Plateau’s most impressive cave entrances featuring an 80-foot mouth carved out of a 150-foot cliff.
In the 1960s, archeological artifacts of the Woodland and Mississippian period were excavated from Buggytop Cave by the University of the South in Sewanee.
Currently, Buggytop Cave is closed to the public due to the occurrence of bats with white-nose syndrome in Tennessee. Cave closures are in effect at this and all other state natural areas where caves are located.
Before heading out to the Sewanee Natural Bridge, visit the South Cumberland State Park visitor center in Monteagle, Tenn. For more information, visit http://www.tn.gov/environment/parks/SouthCumberland or call 931-924-2980.
Directions from Chattanooga: From exit 135 on
I-24 near Monteagle, take US 41 Alt north toward Winchester and Sewanee for 5.6
miles to TN 56. Turn left and take TN 56 south. At 2.2 miles, look for the left
turn on Natural Bridge Road to the Sewanee Natural Bridge and follow the road
for 0.5 mile to dead-end trailhead for the bridge.