Tennessee Waterfall Road Trip

A day or overnight road trip to the Cumberland River Basin's best falls

A GUIDE TO EXPLORING THE CUMBERLAND RIVER BASIN

The road trip is a classic vacation that’s flexible, affordable, and adventurous. It gives you the freedom to customize every detail, from where you stay to what you see and how far you go. If you’re eager to explore some of middle Tennessee’s best waterfalls, a road trip may be in your future this summer. You can hit four of the most popular waterfall destinations in Tennessee in under 100 miles. To help you plan, we’ve plotted out what this trip might look like.

Bubba’s Honey Hole
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Bubba’s Honey Hole and General Store

315 Timothy Rd, Hilham, TN 38568

Start your day and your journey in Hilham, right outside of Standing Stone State Park.

Before heading out on your road trip, stock up on snacks and supplies at Bubba’s Honey Hole. Located right outside the state Park, Bubba’s doubles as a sandwich/pizza shop and general store. Browse their selection of camping supplies and fishing gear to stock up for your journey, and order a sandwich for later. 

Bubba’s menu changes with their daily specials, but you can’t go wrong with customer favorites like their jalapeno philly cheesesteak, loaded fries, or fresh-baked pizza. If your sweet tooth is already calling, indulge yourself in an ice cream treat from their scoop shop before you hit the road!

Photo courtesy of Bubba’s Honey Hole

Exploring Tennessee’s Eighth Largest Waterfall
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Cummins Falls State Park

390 Cummins Falls Ln, Cookeville, TN 38501

Today you’re headed out to explore the 75-foot waterfall at Cummins Falls State Park. Cummins Falls is Tennessee’s eighth largest waterfall in terms of volume and is known for its refreshing swimming hole. Before rushing to catch a glimpse of the falls, stop by the new visitor center to grab a snack for the trail, use the restroom, and learn some information about the park. The friendly folks at the front desk can answer any questions you may have about hiking at the park, including the status of the gorge which sometimes is closed due to high water levels. 

If you’re planning to hike into the gorge to access the base of the waterfall, make sure you purchase a Gorge Access Permit from the visitor center for $6. These permits are also available online for purchase in advance of your visit. The hike to the base of the falls is around 1 mile, but it’s quite strenuous and involves water crossings, boulders, and other obstacles. To stay safe on your visit, wear water-appropriate shoes and use a personal flotation device on children and weak swimmers. Once you reach the falls, you’ll find there’s a lot to explore. Whether you’re happy with taking in the beauty from a sunny rock,  swimming in the plunge pool or exploring the falls up close, you’re sure to have an incredible day in the sun.

For those that would rather not make the hike into the gorge, the waterfall is visible from an overlook platform. To get there, take the Falls Overlook Trail that begins at the trailhead behind the visitors center down to the overlook. This trail is .45 miles and ends with an incredible view of the falls.

The park offers additional hiking trails that do not require a Gorge Access Permit. Check out the park’s newest 3-mile Delia Bell Meadow Trail, which allows access to an overlook of the Blackburn Fork River.

Overnight Options

Head down to Edgar Evins State Park to spend the night camping by Center Hill Lake or cozied up in a cabin. Edgar Evins is a 35-minute drive southwest of Cummins Falls and offers fantastic stargazing, lake access, and a unique camping experience. The main campground offers wooden platform sites, reinforced with concrete and steel, for RVs and tents that extend out into the forest or over the lakeshore. There are also nine primitive tent sites with views of the lake. The cabins are located a short walk from the lake and can sleep up to six.

Red Oak Roasters
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Red Oak Roasters

108 E Main St, Algood, TN 38506

Your travels thus far have probably tired you out. It’s time for a caffeine boost! Head to Red Oak Roasters in Algood (right outside of Cookeville) to kick up your energy levels and treat yourself to some of the area’s best coffee. 

Red Oak roasts their own beans– order some to take home with you– and bakes fresh pastries in-house every day, including a selection of gluten-free items. Order one of their specialty lattes or your go-to drink and fuel up for the next waterfall.

Photo courtesy of Red Oak Roasters

Quadruple Waterfall Adventure at Burgess Falls
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Burgess Falls State Park

4000 Burgess Falls Dr, Sparta, TN 38583

Next, you’re headed to check out the magnificent Burgess Falls State Park. While the largest waterfall is the park’s biggest attraction, Burgess Falls is actually a series of waterfalls on the Falling Water River. The largest of the waterfalls, known as Burgess Falls, is one of the strongest flowing falls in all of Tennessee and stands 136 feet tall. This park is a hot spot during the warmer months so to avoid crowds, plan to arrive around one hour after the park opens.

 

There are two trails from the parking lot that lead the way to the Burgess Falls overlook. The River Trail is a natural trail that hugs the river most of the way. Taking this trail will allow you to see cascades and two smaller waterfalls that are upstream from Burgess Falls. The other trail is technically a service road open to visitors that leads to the overlook. This paved road is more accessible than the River Trail but does not offer views of the river or the smaller waterfalls.

 

Once you make it to the overlook you have the option to veer right and take a steep trail down to the top of Burgess Falls. Unfortunately, several years ago storm waters damaged the staircase down to the base of the falls, but it is still a sight to behold from the observation platform or the top of the falls. 

 

Additional sights at Burgess Falls include a butterfly garden tucked away in a parking lot on the way out of the park and Window Cliffs Natural Area. Window Cliffs is a hiking trail that includes 18 creek crossings along the way to the large rock arches that give the area its name. This strenuous hike is 5.5 miles round trip and takes approximately two and a half to three hours to complete.

 

Overnight Options

While Burgess Falls State Park doesn’t offer overnight accommodations, there are two parks located close by that offer campsites and cabins. You can head back to Edgar Evins State Park, 33 minutes from Burgess, or continue your travels south to Rock Island State Park, 30 minutes from Burgess.

The Hitch
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The Hitch Outfitters

36 W Bockman Way, Sparta, TN 38583

After your visit to Burgess Falls, make a pit stop in Sparta to restock your outdoor inventory at The Hitch Outfitters. This local outfitter has three storefronts throughout the area: McMinnville, Fall Creek Falls, and– their newest location– Sparta!

There you’ll find a selection of outdoor gear and accessories from reputable big-name brands and local companies. If you’ve realized you’re missing any outdoor essentials during your road trip thus far, be sure to find what you need from The Hitch to get well-supplied for the rest of your day.

Looking for a souvenir from your trip? The Hitch is a perfect place to grab a memento to remember your journey. Grab a t-shirt or hat and back onto the road you go!

Photo courtesy of The Hitch Outfitters

Cooling Off at Rock Island State Park
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Rock Island State Park

82 Beach Rd, Rock Island, TN 38581

Now you’re headed to explore, you guessed it, more waterfalls! Rock Island State Park is filled with impressive waterfalls, rushing cascades, and incredible overlooks. The park’s trails are under three miles making it easy to quickly explore multiple waterfalls, overlooks, and swimming holes.

 

The first waterfall on our list is Twin Falls, the most popular waterfall at the park, appearing in hundreds of Instagram photos each year (for good reason). The dramatic falls are accessible from the Twin Falls parking area and the Downstream Trail. The parking area offers distant views of the falls that you can enjoy before heading down to explore the base. The mist from this mighty waterfall is a refreshing treat on warm days. You can explore the rocky area at the base to observe the falls from multiple views. Please note the portion of the river below the TVA’s powerhouse (including Twin Falls) is very dangerous due to hidden currents, and absolutely no swimming is allowed.

 

If you’re looking to take a dip, follow the trail upstream from the falls until you get to a staircase that returns to the Twin Falls parking area. Take the Upstream Trail to access the upper gorge area where swimming is allowed in spots such as the “ice hole”, the “warm hole”, and Great Falls. While swimming is allowed in this area, please remember to use caution and good judgment! 

 

Along the trail, you’ll find lots of pools for swimming and large boulders to relax on. As you work your way up the trail, climbing over rock slabs and boulder piles, you’ll encounter a delicate rain-like waterfall plunging from a rock ledge high above. The way the falls jut out from the side of the rock face allows you the unique opportunity to walk behind the falls and catch the mist up close. 

 

Continuing up the trail, you’ll find Great Falls, a horseshoe-shaped ledge with three waterfalls spilling over. The pool below is a popular spot for swimming but remember that jumping from the falls is not allowed. If you’re not up for the rugged hike out to Great Falls, don’t miss the opportunity to view the falls from the overlook next to the historic Cotton Mill building

 

Overnight Options

The park offers ten premium three-bedroom, two-bath cabins that sleep up to ten people. Camping is also available for tents and RVs at the park campground. Fifty sites offer electric and water hookups and sites one through four also offer sewer hookups.

 

Trip Planning Tip: This is a very popular park that fills up quickly when the weather is warm. If you’re planning to stay in a cabin or at the campground, make your reservations well in advance and aim to stay during the week to avoid crowds.

 

Note Before Visiting: TVA periodically releases Great Falls Dam, causing dangerous conditions that result in the closure of the gorge (all areas below the dam). Do not enter closed areas. Before visiting, check TVA generation/spill schedules. When the gorge is open, always use caution and note that water may rise rapidly. Leave the gorge immediately if water begins to rise or you hear warning sirens. Swimming or wading is not allowed in any areas from TVA’s powerhouse downstream down to the main beach boat ramp, including by the “powerhouse”, “Twin Falls”, and “Blue Hole” due to hidden and deadly currents. Do NOT jump into water of unknown depths

 

The Lazy Daisy
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The Lazy Daisy

96 Great Falls Rd, Rock Island, TN 38581

Antique lovers rejoice! Our next stop is The Lazy Daisy, located right outside of Rock Island State Park, is full of vintage and antique treasures to browse. Stop in on your way out of the park and discover what gems await for your collection. 

Antiques aren’t your thing? Not to worry, The Lazy Daisy hosts a selection of home decor and specialty items from local vendors. Pick up local bath products, soaps, preserves, and other locally-made goodies to get a taste of what area artisans have to offer.

Photo courtesy of The Lazy Daisy

Tallest Waterfall East of the Mississippi
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Fall Creek Falls State Park

2009 Village Camp Rd, Spencer, TN 38585

Fall Creek Falls is Tennessee’s most visited state parks drawing visitors from all across the globe. It’s a world of towering waterfalls, breathtaking overlooks, hiking, paddling, treetop adventures, golfing, fishing, and more. The park’s biggest claim to fame is being home to one the tallest waterfalls in the Eastern United States, Fall Creek Falls. This 256’ waterfall is one of the most spectacular sites in Tennessee. It is visible from an overlook adjacent to a parking lot. There is also a difficult trail descending approximately ½- mile to the base of the falls. The water volume varies based on the time of year, with spring being one of the best times to view the falls at full throttle.

 

If you’re looking to cool of at the base of a waterfall, head over to Cane Creek Cascades located right behind the Betty Dunn Nature Center. Cane Creek Cascades is a gushing waterfall that sits just above the 85 foot Cane Creek Falls. Enjoy the cool mist from one of the large rocks at the base or take a plunge into the bubbling pool. Above the cascades you’ll see a long suspension bridge stretching over the width of the falls. This bridge offers an incredible of the cascades from above and connects you the Woodland and Gorge Overlook Trails that lead to Fall Creek Falls.

 

If swimming below a rushing waterfall isn’t your speed, opt for a dip at the swimming area near the campground. This natural pool of water is surrounded by beautiful rock walls. This is a popular spot to cool off and lay out on the small sandy beach near the water.

 

When it’s time to refuel, you can grab a snack at the Golf Course snackbar (open seasonally) or enjoy a meal at the park restaurant. The restaurant is located inside the brand new Lodge at Fall Creek Falls that offers hotel style accommodations.

 

Overnight Options

The park offers campsites, cabins, and Lodge rooms.

Perfect Light Gallery
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Perfect Light Gallery

http://www.perfectlightgallery.com/

Before you leave Fall Creek Falls, it’s time to discover another local business before the last stop on your journey. While their storefront sold a few years ago, Perfect Light Gallery is a local gem you’ve got to look up on your phone. 

Fine Arts Photographer John Hargis has curated this online gallery to include his best shots of places near and far from his Pikeville home. Hargis’ shots of Fall Creek Falls have earned his photographs spots in the galleries of senators and governors, as well as travel books, calendars, and the walls of many folks who have a love for the area and its beautiful state parks. 

Browse the gallery to find breathtaking photographs of the scenery and wildlife that make this area and its parks so special.

Photo courtesy of John Hargis, Perfect Light Gallery

Things to Keep in Mind

While you’re planning, keep these things in mind:

  • All Tennessee State Parks are free to enter.
  • Cabins at Tennessee State Parks have a two-night minimum (and may have additional minimums at peak times).
  • Tennessee State Park campsites must be reserved at least one day in advance. Reservations can be made online or by calling the park.
  • All parks with cabins offer camping as well.
  • All campgrounds are pet-friendly and all parks with lodging have a number of pet-friendly cabins and lodge rooms.
  • You don’t have to own gear to go camping. Tennessee State Parks has a partnership that helps you rent outdoor gear online such as camping, backpacking, and hiking gear.

When you’re visiting our parks, please remember to practice responsible recreation to reduce your impact.

About this guide

This guide was written in partnership with Tennessee State Parks.

There are more than 20 Tennessee State Parks within the Cumberland River Basin, each with their own unique history, features, and opportunities for outdoor recreation. All of these parks rely on clean water to support the humans and creatures that visit and call them home. The Cumberland River Compact has partnered with TN State Parks to bring you guides that highlight the best features of parks around the basin, along with the communities that surround them. We hope these guides will encourage you to support the vision of clean and abundant water for our Cumberland River Basin by visiting these parks whose vision is to protect and preserve the unique natural, cultural, and historic resources of Tennessee.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR