Of Taxidermied Squirrels and Alien Spaceships

Exploring Rock Island, Tennessee


Map showing Caney Fork and Collins River watershed

The Caney Fork and Collins River watersheds come together between Sparta and McMinnville in Rock Island, one of the most beautiful and interesting places in middle Tennessee. Because I live in nearby Cookeville, I’ve spent countless hours exploring and enjoying this area, which is easily accessible from Tennessee Highway 111.

Starting the day off right, cheeseburger style
Rock Island Market sign
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Rock Island Market & Cafe

1231 Rock Island Rd, Rock Island, TN 38581

Don’t even think of setting out on this wonderful day-long adventure with an empty stomach. For a lot of good food for not a lot of money, consider making Rock Island Market & Café (1231 Rock Island Road) your first stop. Breakfast is served until 11 a.m. From then until closing, you can fill your plate from the buffet (two meat choices, lots of vegetables and rolls or cornbread) or order anything from hot sandwiches to salads to full dinners from the menu. Hunt Brothers pizza is also available. The dining area is quaint, with real wood paneling on the walls and ceiling and a lovely rock fireplace that burns gas logs, not wood, because it doesn’t have a chimney. Antique tools, lanterns and iron cook pots enhance the décor. At the cusp between breakfast and lunch, I feasted on one of the most delicious cheeseburgers ever, piled high with lettuce, tomato (ripe and juicy even though it was early spring), onion and pickle on a buttered, toasted bun.

From the café, stroll on into the adjacent market, where a taxidermied squirrel lovingly holding an acorn greets shoppers near the front door. Here, you can purchase everything you might need to fish nearby waters, including rods, reels, tackle and live bait. You can buy your hunting and/or fishing license (cash only) as well as firewood, camping supplies, basic hardware items, t-shirts, caps, snacks and cold drinks. What you can’t buy at Rock Island Market is beer. Warren County regulations don’t allow the sale of alcohol within 2,000 feet of a church, and this store is too close.  

Hours for the café are 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. The market is open from 5 a.m. until 7 p.m. Both close at 3:00 on Sunday and are closed all day Monday. 

Fall City Cotton Mill
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Fall City Cotton Mill

1279 Great Falls Rd, Rock Island, TN 38581

It’s a two-mile journey to Rock Island State Park, located at the confluence of the Collins, Caney Fork and Rocky Rivers. Cross the bridge and marvel at the Great Falls Dam, completed in 1917 and now TVA-owned and operated. Then pull into the Great Falls parking lot. Gasp at the beauty of Great Falls to your right and Twin Falls way off to the left (more about these falls later).

You’ll no doubt wonder about the sturdy brick structure situated on the bluff above the Great Falls. This is the Falls City Cotton Mill, a three-story, 23,000 square foot building constructed in 1892. A thriving town grew up around the mill, which employed 300 workers, most of them widows and children. In its heyday, Great Falls Mill spun, wove, bleached, dyed, printed, finished and sold goods made of wool and cotton. The mill was widely known for the heavy cotton sheeting it produced. The town of Great Falls boasted a post office, blacksmith shop, sawmill, grist mill and general store.

But prosperity was short lived. A cataclysmic flood that occurred on March 28, 1902 destroyed the town. Raging waters also swept away the mill’s turbine, rendering the mill useless. It never resumed operations. 

As you might guess, the once-solid brick building has fallen into severe disrepair. Because of the mill’s historical and cultural significance, the Tennessee Historical Commission helped fund roof repairs several years ago. The mill was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Suggestions for its use in the twenty-first century include a restaurant/inn and a museum. But funding for such endeavors is not in place and the building has deteriorated to the point that it’s closed to visitors. 

Spring Castle
Spring Castle steps and trees
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Spring Castle

1080-1278 Great Falls Rd, Rock Island, TN 38581

Walk directly across the road from the mill and you may feel as though you’ve entered a medieval fairyland. Tucked up next to a verdant hill is the Spring Castle, a moss-covered rock building shaped like a castle tower, complete with pointed “witch’s hat” roof. A stone staircase leads to a door where visitors can see water trickling out of the spring. Residents of Falls City utilized the Spring Castle as a refrigerator and used its water both for fire control and for drinking. Park rangers advise against drinking the spring water these days because it’s not treated, but they admit that more than a few visitors fill their water bottles anyway. 

Rock Island State Park
Kayaker in Caney Fork River at Rock Island State Park by Chuck Sutherland
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Rock Island State Park

82 Beach Rd, Rock Island, TN 38581

Turn right out of the parking lot to get to the main part of Rock Island State Park, including the park office/visitor center, nature center, picnic areas, campground and beach. The park was established in 1969 and offers ten cabins, open year-round, and sixty campsites (ten are tent-only). Hikers can enjoy the park’s eight trails, where an impressive variety of wildflowers can be seen from early spring until late fall. Fishing is available on Center Hill and Great Falls Lake as well as on the Collins, Caney Fork and Rocky Rivers. Common game fish include bass, catfish, crappie, bluegill, walleye and musky. Boaters enjoy cruising and waterskiing on the lakes, and the rivers are popular with canoeists and kayakers. Whitewater on the Caney Fork River is so outstanding that Rock Island State Park played host in 2012 to the U.S. Freestyling Kayaking World Championships.

Remember the far-away view of Twin Falls from the Great Falls parking lot? Now it’s time to see those falls up close and personal. But first, ice cream! Exit the park and make your way back to Rock Island Market. Directly across the street is Trolley Stop Ice Cream Shop, where you can choose from more than a dozen flavors of Blue Bell Ice Cream, served through the window of a charming old red trolley car.

Go north onto Highway 136 and proceed 1.2 miles to Powerhouse Road. Turn left at the colorful Happy Yaker Cabin Rentals. A quarter-mile down the road you’ll spy, on the banks of the Caney Fork River, a restaurant named Foglight Foodhouse. Drive on by. They don’t open until suppertime. Continue down and around the curves of Powerhouse Road for a couple of miles until it dead ends at the Great Falls Dam power house, which you may hardly notice at first because you’re too busy taking in the beauty of the falls. 

Three trails are accessible from the Twin Falls parking lot. My favorite is the Caney Fork River Upstream Gorge Trail, which is on your left as you face the power house. Though the trail is short (one mile total, in and out), it’s spectacular, especially if you enjoy getting wet. The path is flanked by the canyon wall on one side and the river on the other. Footwear that’s suitable for mud is recommended. If you like to rock-scramble and boulder-hop, this is the place to do it. If swimming is your thing, you can try out the chilly moving waters of the “ice hole” or the still waters of the pond-like “warm hole.” You might also want to stand beneath the wispy waterfall that marks the turn-around spot on the trail.

Foglight Foodhouse
Foglight Foodhouse in TN
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Foglight Foodhouse

275 Power House Rd, Walling, TN 38587

Once you’re hungry and thirsty again, head back up the road to Foglight Foodhouse, which is open from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 4 p.m. until 8 p.m. on Saturday. When you pull into the gravel parking lot, the first thing you may notice is that the covered entrance to the restaurant’s front door is actually a capsized boat. Check out the outdoor fire pit, where guests can hang out and enjoy locally-brewed Calfkiller beer while waiting to be seated for dinner. 

Be sure to get a good look, just to the right of the building, at the 600-foot long railroad trestle that spans the Caney Fork River. Imagine how cool it would be to sit on that section of track and watch the moon come up over the river. But don’t do it. Trains still travel these rails and it’s a federal offense to trespass. Park rangers are authorized to make an immediate arrest of anyone on the tracks. Those who might choose to jump into the water just for fun (or to avoid the law) may find that doing so is a terrible idea. In the first place, it’s a long way down. And the river at this spot is filled with debris, including barely submerged trunks of enormous trees.

Better to simply chill out on the riverbank and take in the extraordinary aromas wafting through the air.

Owner and executive chef Edward Philpot, who opened Foglight in 1997, calls the little restaurant “my lantern in the woods.” “If you’re in a hurry for a meal,” Philpot likes to say, “you’ve come to the wrong place.” Visitors from far and near enjoy Foglight’s eclectic menu of fresh seafood, hand-cut meats, pasta dishes, and classic Cajun cuisine. Wonderful appetizers and salads. And an ever-changing dessert menu. Coffee, tea and a variety of soft drinks are offered, as is an impressive selection of micro-brewed beer. For a nominal glass fee, you can bring your own bottle of wine or spirits.

Those Dam Lights
Great Falls Dam Powerhouse by Chuck Sutherland
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Great Falls Dam Powerhouse

If you’re not quite ready to hit the road for home after dinner, turn left out of the parking lot and head back down to the end of Powerhouse Road.

Stop when you spot the gigantic glow. Is it something straight out of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”? Have space aliens landed in Walling, Tennessee to take a look at Twin Falls in the moonlight? Nope, it’s only the power house, impressive by day but mesmerizing in the dark of night. If you’re lucky–or foresighted—enough to have put folding chairs in your trunk, set them up on the paved pad just above the steps that lead to the river. Notice how the power plant resembles a medieval castle, complete with moat and drawbridge. Relax and let the evening breeze caress your face. Smell the damp earth. Listen to the roar of the falls.  

It’s the perfect ending to a perfect day exploring just one small part of the amazing Caney Fork and Collins River watersheds.