While it may be hard to believe, Tennessee is known for more than honkytonks, Dollywood, and Graceland. Home to several major tourist destinations, including Nashville, Memphis, and the Smoky Mountains, some of its best travel spots are surprisingly just off the beaten path. An hour and fifteen minutes east of Nashville International Airport, you’ll find Cookeville, TN, a charming city in the heart of the Upper Cumberland region.
Today, Cookeville is recognized as the largest micropolitan area in Tennessee, making this tiny town a vibrant hub of activity. Surrounded by stunning scenery ranging from hills, rivers, and waterfalls, Cookville is the hub of the 14-county Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee.
If you’re looking for the perfect vacation that is slightly off the beaten path, without departing from civilization, Cookeville is your first stop.
Arriving in Cookeville, your first foodie destination should be breakfast – or an afternoon snack – at Ralph’s Donuts. Home of the #1 donut in all of Tennessee, Ralph’s is one part local charm and one part pure sugar.
Cookeville is home to Rich Froning, the first person to win the title of “Fittest Man on Earth” four times in the CrossFit Games, and you’ll be glad to know that Froning has his own donut – maple bacon – at Ralph’s. As a donut aficionado, I can tell you that it’s the best donut I’ve ever tasted.
(Side note: Ralph’s Donuts is closed for the week of July 4th every year.)
For lunch or dinner, try Seven Senses Food & Cheer, located in Cookeville’s historic West Side. World-renowned grillmaster Michael McDearman’s charming restaurant couples a gorgeous interior with a delicious menu. “Southern fare with a twist,” Seven Senses’ fantastic food includes pork belly tacos and fried grits (think hushpuppies, but better). At Seven Senses, you’ll start to understand why Tennessee proudly holds the title of #1 Barbecue State in 2015, according to TripAdvisor.
Dessert can be none other than Cream City Ice Cream, a short walk down lovely Broad Street, where you can snag an ice cream sundae or a coffee at this delightful local ice cream parlour. It’s impossible to miss Cream City, with it’s vintage sign from the original creamery standing atop the building. First erected in 1958, Cookeville’s CityScape helped restore the light as part of a community effort to get the sign up and running. Owners Chris and Karen Savage serve handmade ice cream, made specially for them by Mike’s Ice Cream of Nashville.
“This is our fun job,” they laughed, explaining that they’ve had opportunities to move away but Cookeville is “it”. Staffed entirely by college students, Cream City is the perfect place to end your first night in Cookeville, and maybe your second and third as well.
Outside of Cookeville, you’ll find a wide range of activities that include more foodie destinations, shopping, and outdoor adventures.
Stop by The Bull & Thistle pub in Gainesboro, TN, to see where chef Barry O’Connor from Cork, Ireland brings his phenomenal culinary talents to a beautiful small town pub. This historical building was erected in 1910, then a dry goods store, and was renovated within the Gainesboro historical society’s guidelines. Original wood floors and brick walls were discovered and restored during the renovations, and intricate original tin tiles were refinished in copper on the ceiling. While the gorgeous interior is reason alone to stop by the Bull & Thistle, you’ll stay for the food and entertainment.
Fans of shopping should also swing out to Baxter, TN to visit the flagship store for Lenny & Eva. Their gorgeous interchangeable jewelry collection is one of the popular available today, shipping to over 2,000 retail locations internationally, but they are proud to call the small town of Baxter home.
If outdoor adventure is calling your name, you’ll find 150 waterfalls within a 40 mile radius of downtown Cookeville. At Cummins Falls State Park, for example, you’ll find one of the top ten swimming holes in the entire United States.
For those interested in astronomy, you’ll be delighted to discover Pickett State Park, the 18th “dark sky” park in the United States. What does this mean? Because of the lack of light pollution, night-time visitors to the park will not only see a host of celestial sights, but the Milky Way can be seen in both summer and winter.
The park sought its International Dark-Sky Association registration with strong community support, achieved “Silver Tier” ranking (meaning there is some impact from light pollution in the park), and is one of a handful of dark sky parks east of the Mississippi River. The park is open to all visitors any time – day or night – as long as inform the ranger on duty of your visit. For more information on Pickett State Park’s cabins or “star parties,” visit their website here.
Rent a cabin at Cumberland Mountain State Park and wander the park, which is known not only for it’s gorgeous scenery, but the fact that it is the only park in the country with its own record label.
Finally, if you’re looking for a little bit of “something else,” don’t miss Stonehaus Winery and the Cumberland County Playhouse in Crossville, TN, as well as Short Mountain Distillery in Woodbury, TN.
Stonehaus Winery is a family-owned winery that produces a wide variety of wines. On the free tour of the facility, winemaker and visionary Fay Wheeler, the “Grandfather of Tennessee Wine,” made his love for wine clear when he told us, “the creator designed this grape to make wine, not juice or jelly.”
Fans of all wines will find something to love at this stop, whether that’s a dry white or a sweet blackberry wine. Everyone should try the Muscadine, their most popular wine, made by the native American Muscadine grapes that are fondly known as “God’s gift to the sunny south.”
Cumberland County Playhouse is a great destination if you’d like to experience some bright lights in a little city. Managed by two generations of the Crabtree family since 1965, producing director Jim Crabtree highlighted the importance of this talented community theatre.
“Professional theatres tend to build walls to keep volunteers out,” he told us after a staging of Pinocchio, “Community theatres tend to build walls to keep professionals out…why can’t we be both?”
As a result, the Cumberland County Playhouse is one of the 10 largest professional theaters in rural America, drawing professionals from around the country.
For a nightcap to end your visit to the Upper Cumberlands region, stop by Short Mountain Distillery for some of the finest moonshine in the country. Visits to the distillery and tastings are free, and you can go on a tour for only $10 and receive a moonshine tasting shot glass. If you’re looking to learn a little more about the history of moonshine, stop by on a Friday or Saturday for the chance to meet actual moonshiners (from when it was illegal!)
Try a sip of world-renowned “apple pie” moonshine, or one of the unflavored varieties for a taste of certified organic moonshine. Billy Kaufman, one of Short Mountain’s owners, promises “not to have Yankees as our tour guides…it ruins the experience.”
The experience only gets better once you discover that Cooper Melton – once the owner of the farm that Short Mountain calls home – was one of Al Capone’s moonshiners during Prohibition. Rest assured, the lineage, recipes, traditions, and language of the regions live on in Woodbury today, and you can see all of it at Short Mountain Distillery.
Plus, while the distillery is settled on a huge farm only an hour and twenty minutes from Nashville, the farm is also home to the Stillhouse Restaurant. Serving locally produced foods in gourmet dishes, this restaurant is a must-see and, more importantly, a must-taste! From the relaxed vibe to the giant hand-made bar, you won’t regret finishing off your trip to the Upper Cumberlands region here.
By Jandra Sutton