#TravelTuesday: Wowed by the Waterfalls of Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland

by Jennifer Simonson on April 30, 2019 in Travel,

On past visits to Tennessee, I have spent my time in Nashville eating hot chicken, listening to live music on Honky Tonk Row, and touring museums of seemingly every country star to have ever lived.

But on my latest trip to the Volunteer State I wanted to do something I rarely do on vacation – commune with nature.

After flying into Nashville I headed an hour-and-a-half southeast to the Upper Cumberland Region. The area is known for its natural beauty, rolling hills, rural communities and numerous State Parks. It is basically one big State Park with a few Waffle Houses scattered about to break things up.

While I enjoy hiking as much as the next person, I need a reason to hike. There has to be a destination point, a reward for all that hard work of putting one foot in front of the other. Luckily for me, the Upper Cumberland area is full of my favorite designation points: waterfalls. With more than 100 in the area, this region has the highest concentration of waterfalls of anywhere in the continental United States.

Ozone Falls is one of the most impressive of Tennessee’s many waterfalls and, located just off of I-40, it is one of the easiest to visit. Photo Jennifer Simonson

TLC might warn on TV against chasing waterfalls, but I highly disagree. Who doesn’t love a good waterfall? I could listen to the sound of rushing water hitting a pool of otherwise stagnant water and watch water continually cascading over rocks for hours. Throw in a watering hole to cool off from the hike, and I am in nature heaven.

While it is impossible to hit all the Upper Cumberland waterfalls in one day, you can hit the big ones, snap a few waterfall selfies, wade in crystal clear water and be at a brewery by happy hour.

Working one’s way north to south, the first stop on the waterfall tour is Cummins Falls. Since becoming a State Park in 2011, Cummins Falls is one of the most visited waterfalls in the state. The 75-foot falls consists  of two drops. The first plunges 50 feet into a shallow pool. The second drop cascades down twenty-five feet into a swimming hole that Travel and Leisure Magazine classified as one of the top 10 swimming holes in the United States.

It is hard to say which waterfall is the best, but the Twin Falls waterfall at Rock Island State Park is impressive. The water shoots out of hillside caves before cascading 80 feet into the Caney Fork River creating Class V river rapids. Not only do you get the glorious view of the waterfalls, but It is common to see world class kayakers training in the river below the falls.

The two streams that pour out of the limestone gorge wall 80 feet above the Caney Fork River make up Twin Falls. Photo Jennifer Simonson

Heading 30 miles west, we hit two of the area’s most popular waterfalls at Fall Creek Falls State Park. Park Rangers brag that the Cane Creek Falls – an 85-foot plunge waterfall – is the setting for the 1994 Jungle Book movie.

While Cane Creek Falls is breathtaking, the park’s namesake Fall Creek Falls is the main attraction. At 256 feet high, it is one of the tallest waterfalls in the United States. To truly appreciate its grandeur we hiked to the base. The less-than-half-a-mile hike to the bottom takes you down 300 feet of elevation (you guessed it, hiking back up is a calf-burner). During the hour round trip hike to the bottom we passed Refrigerator Rock – a large boulder that blows cool air on hikers – and numerous interesting rock outcrops as we made our way to the small pool of water below.

At this point in the afternoon it is likely that you have had your fill of waterfalls, however if you have stamina for one more, head to Ozone Falls. The 110-foot plunging waterfall lands in a deep-blue pool that is one of the area’s most popular swimming destinations.

The beer taps at Happy Trails brewery in Sparta, TN are re-used wooden walking sticks. Photo Jennifer Simonson

What better reward for all your hiking then a refreshing cold beer? Though this area of Tennessee is not typically known as a hotbed of craft beer connoisseurs, local microbreweries like Happy Trails in Sparta are starting to pop up around the region. The husband-and-wife owners opened the brewery to showcase their love for the outdoors and beer with a State Park-inspired brewery. Old wooden State Park signs now act as tabletops, the beer taps are wooden walking sticks, and maps of hiking trails line the brewery walls. Sipping on a delicately hopped Virgin Falls IPA, looking at the tree mural painted the wall in front of me, I could almost hear a waterfall in the background.


Cover: World-class athletes like Olympic kayaker Eric Jackson train in the Caney Fork River rapids. Photo Jennifer Simonson