With an estimated 300 waterfalls in our state, there are plenty of wonderful and affordable one-day waterfall adventures within easy reach.
Not only are our waterfalls spectacularly beautiful, they are naturally socially distanced, and they offer a chance for families and friends to unplug and explore the great outdoors.
Tennessee’s waterfalls have always been popular destinations, but with COVID-19, the number of visitors to them has increased dramatically. “It is hard to estimate exactly, but the number is many times more than normal,” State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath said. “Trails that never saw a crowd are crowded.”
Because of the increased popularity, Hedgepath’s best advice is to go on a weekday and to go early in the morning to avoid large crowds. “If you go in the middle of the day on a Saturday, you just have to know it will be packed,” he said.
Hedgepath, who has led countless state park waterfall hikes and tours, said the Tennessee falls almost never disappoint. “You will be taken aback. People say ‘wow’ a lot. They really are struck with awe,” he said.
Here are three Middle Tennessee falls to check out this spring or summer.
Burgess Falls State Park, on Falling Water River in White County, is just about 10 miles off Interstate 40 about an hour and a half east of Nashville. It consists of four waterfalls that cascade down 250 feet, including one that plunges 136 feet down into the gorge.
Be forewarned that there is no swimming allowed. But there is a nice 1.5-mile round-trip hike that gives you views of all four falls.
“The trail is beautiful,” said Hedgepath, who said parts of the trail are easy, but other parts are rated “moderate” because of uneven stairs and other footing obstacles.
While the base of the falls is not currently accessible on the trail (stormwater several years ago damaged the staircase down to the base of the falls), there is a great view from an overlook on the main park trail.
The area has a lot of history, too. It was originally populated by Native Americans, including Cherokee, Creek and Chickasaw tribes, who used the land as a hunting ground until the late 19th century. The Falling Water River was used for many years to generate hydroelectric power for Cookeville from 1928 until 1944. It became a Tennessee State Natural Area in 1973.
Details: This 350-acre day use park is at 4000 Burgess Falls Drive in Sparta. In addition to the main trail, there is a half-mile Ridge Top Trail. The park has a restroom at the trailhead. No swimming is allowed.
Cummins Falls, 84 miles from Nashville, is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular waterfall sites in the state. This 75-foot waterfall on the Blackburn Fork State Scenic River is Tennessee’s eighth-largest waterfall in terms of volume. And the pool at the bottom is a perfect swimming hole, making it a popular destination for nature lovers and adventure seekers for more than 100 years.
There is an easily accessible overlook at the top of the falls that just requires a half-mile walk. But if you want to go to the bottom, you must plan ahead and get a permit before you go.
State Parks now requires a Gorge Access Permit for any hikers who want to hike to the bottom of the gorge. Hedgepath says the permit requirement was instituted because of the dangers and the tendency for this park to be overcrowded. Permits are available on the park website for $6.59 per person and must be obtained in advance.
The hike to the bottom is a ”rugged” 2-mile hike that requires three water crossings as well as rock hopping on slippery rocks and other challenges. Let me just say this awe-inspiring hike is not for the casual walker, and not recommended for children 5 and under.
In fact, when I wrote about Cummins Falls for The Tennessean in 2014, I said, “Being in the gorge was beautiful and peaceful, but I just have to say deep down that I was a nervous wreck.
“I can’t tell you how many times I wondered how long it might take for Vanderbilt’s LifeFlight to get there, if I should make a misstep.”
Some other things to know before you go are that the base of the waterfall is accessible only on fair weather days; the gorge is prone to flash flooding; and children under 12 must wear life vests at the falls and be accompanied by an adult.
The website warns: “These trails are quite strenuous and involve water crossings, boulders and other obstacles. Heavy rains often make the gorge trails dangerous and unapproachable, so check the website before visiting. Visiting the gorge is a very strenuous and physical activity.”
Details: Cummins Falls is a 282-acre day use park 9 miles north of Cookeville, in Jackson County on the Blackburn Fork State Scenic River on the Eastern Highland Rim.
The main parking area, restrooms, trailheads and a designated picnic area are located above the falls. Park hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. The park is at 390 Cummins Falls Lane, Cookeville. For more information call 931-268-7223 or go to https://tnstateparks.com/parks/cummins-falls.
Stillhouse Hollow Falls
Lesser known but beautiful, Stillhouse Hollow Falls is a 90-acre state natural area in Maury County, about an hour south of Nashville. You can enjoy a mostly family-friendly hike along a well-marked trail that takes you to the bottom of a gorge, where you can see a gorgeous 75-foot waterfall as it plunges into a pristine and inviting swimming hole.
The depth of the plunge pool varies by rainfall levels, but it was about 2 feet deep on the day we visited — perfect for our young children to explore while wading. Their goggles made it even more fun.
And this was a perfect place to perfect the art of skipping flat rocks on the water.
The hike from the car to the bottom of the falls takes about 30 minutes, and there were a few footing challenges with the children, but nothing that a little hand holding didn’t solve. And the occasional difficulty was well worth the effort once we saw — and heard — the falls from the bottom.
Details: Stillhouse Hollow Falls is 21 miles southwest of Columbia and 3 miles north of Summertown. The entrance to the natural area is on Highway 43, and there is a sign, but it’s easy to miss. The trail to the falls is about two-thirds of a mile and is considered family-friendly.
Parking can be a challenge, and there are no restrooms in the park.
Mary Hance, who has four decades of journalism experience in the Nashville area, writes a weekly Ms. Cheap column. She also appears on Thursdays on “Talk of the Town” on NewsChannel 5. Reach her at email@example.com, and follow her on Facebook as Facebook.com/mscheap.