Fall Creek Falls State Park is one of Tennessees largest and most visited state parks, featuring virgin stands of old growth forest, deep gorges, and a plentitude of majestic waterfalls. As one of Americas most scenic outdoor recreation areas, the park features the highest free-fall waterfall in the eastern United States, Fall Creek Falls. Centered atop the upper Cane Creek Gorge, this area was originally purchased by the National Park Service and developed as a recreation demonstration area in the 1930’s. With over 56 miles of hiking trails, visitors are never far from exploring some of the parks best sights including a descent to the bottom of Fall Creek Falls and Coon Falls, Piney Creek Falls, Cane Creek Falls and Cascades, and Rockhouse Falls.
Base of Falls Trail | 0.35 Miles
Cable Trail | 0.10 Miles
Overlook Trail | 0.65 Miles
Piney Creek Falls Trail | 0.2 Miles
Fall Creek Falls State Park Location | Google Maps
With over 800 documented waterfalls throughout Tennessee, you’re never far from your next big adventure while exploring the Volunteer State. Tennessee State Route 111, stretching from the Kentucky state line to Chattanooga has access to more waterfalls per capita than any other region in the state. With giant splashers located within Cummins Falls State Park, Rock Island State Park, Burgess Falls State Park, Falls Creek Falls State Park, and the Lost Creek State Natural Area just a short jaunt away from your car, theres literally no excuse to not go out and see them all. Often undertaken as a summer road trip for families and waterfall chasers alike, this exciting adventure can easily be completed over a weekends time.
Fall Creek Falls State Park is our fourth stop along Middles Tennessee famed waterfall highway. This park is a bucket list destination for outdoor enthusiasts and waterfall chasers alike. As Tennessee’s largest resort-style state park, Fall Creek Falls has a new state of the art lodge, convenient access to boating, fishing, swimming, golfing and offers activities not found in many other parks including horseback riding and a zip-line adventure park. As for us, we’re here to scout out its 6 enormous waterfalls, not including the secluded Hemlock Falls which resides in a newly acquired parcel in the northernmost section of the park. After stopping by the Visitors Center to grab a map and ask for some recommendations from the Park Rangers, we headed off in the direction of the main event, Fall Creek Falls.
Fall Creek Falls & Coon Falls
To reach this waterfall, you must drive into the heart of the park and turn onto Scenic Loop Rd. Heading east on this loop for several miles, you’ll encounter the large parking lot and picnic area surrounding this epic waterfall. Fall Creek Falls is the visual poster child for Tennessee State Parks and the Department of Environment and Conservations efforts to conserve some of the states most beautiful natural landmarks. Before becoming a state park in 1944, the land encompassing the park was originally purchased by The National Park Service and was surrounded by several shuttered rock quarries, iron ore and zinc mines. Looking to turn this badly eroded land into a demonstration recreation area, the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps were brought in to restore the forest and build park facilities in 1937. Early maps of the proposed park show most of the effort in development centered around Fall Creek Falls and the other 5 major waterfalls of the Caney Creek Gorge, before the parks was eventually expanded to its current 30,000 acres.
Walking the 50 yards from the parking lot to the main overlook of Fall Creek Falls, I was absolutely floored by the sheer beauty of this landscape. After witnessing its raw force, its not at all shocking to discover that Fall Creek Falls is the largest “free-fall” waterfall in the Eastern United States. At a height of 256 feet, there are definitely taller waterfalls out there like Whitewater Falls in North Carolina, but as a single plunge, this is it. To the right of Fall Creek Falls is another thinner, yet equally impressive waterfall, Coon Creek Falls. This waterfall is seasonal in nature and is best seen during fall and spring. The secret to Fall Creek Falls consistent flow is the man made Fall Creek Falls Lake. This scenic 360-acre lake was constructed by the C.C.C. with a dam on its northern end supplying Fall Creek Falls with a year round flow.
Base of Falls Trail (0.35 Miles)
Those looking to see both of these waterfalls up close will be delighted to find that the Base of Falls Trail does just that. At just 0.35 miles, this hiking trail descends a total of 256 feet from the cliffside overlook, deep into the depths of the Cane Creek Gorge. This well traveled trail features massive rock formations and a rare glimpse into the secluded forest hidden just out of sight from most visitors. Most of the parks protected old growth forests survive within the mixed cove forests of Cane Creek Gorge.
These virgin stands of white basswood, American beech, green ash, yellow buckeye, Eastern hemlock, shagbark hickory, and tuliptree are spread over a 200 acre area. On September 25, 2020, the forest at Fall Creek Falls State Park was designated as part of the Old-Growth Forest Network. This designation was the second in Tennessee behind the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and includes the second-tallest known green ash tree in the Southeast at 146 feet tall.
Piney Creek Falls
Another one of the parks stunning waterfalls, Piney Creek Falls, is also located along Scenic Loop Rd. To reach it, keep driving the full extent of Scenic Loop Rd until you reach the intersection leading to the Piney Creek Falls Overlook. Along the way, make sure to stop by the Millikan Overlook to catch a dramatic 360 degree view of Cane Creek Gorge. There are three separate ways to see this waterfall, all somewhat dangerous, so it’s important to keep an eye on young children with this one. The quickest way to see Piney Creek Falls is to hike the short 0.2 mile Piney Creek Falls Trail on the far RIGHT of the parking lot to the canyon overlook. Here, you get a distant view of the falls, but it’s a great way to take in the enormity of the gorge carved by the flow of Piney Creek. Unless a secret shortcut exists to reach the bottom of the falls, the only known route involves a dangerous 10 mile hike deep into Cane Creek Gorge, which is known to flash flood without warning and leave hikers stranded.
At 95 feet high, Piney Creek Falls is made up of several cascades both at the top and bottom, with one large plunge in the center. Obstructed by foliage most of the year, non of the overlooks here do this waterfall any justice, but this is the best one by far. To get a little closer, we begin heading in the direction of the falls by hiking a 100 yard portion of the 12 mile Lower Loop Trail. As you near the suspension bridge spanning 60 feet across Upper Piney Creek, keep an eye out for several lookouts. One of these in particular has a picture perfect view of the upper cascades of Piney Creek Falls, but heed the advice and stay behind the railing. The last of the overlooks involves crossing the suspension bridge and turning RIGHT\NORTH on a short spur trail to the very top of the falls.
Cane Creek Falls & Cascades, Rockhouse Falls
Two of the more photogenic and easy to reach waterfalls in the park have to be Cane Creek Cascades & Cane Creek Falls. Situated next to the Fall Creek Falls Nature Center, it’s a quick walk from the parking lot to an overhead view of Cane Creek Falls. Plummeting 85 feet over a 40 foot crest, this is the largest waterfall by volume in Fall Creek Falls State Park. The view from this overlook is lackluster so I would suggest crossing the suspension bridge and taking the 0.50 mile hike to an overlook of the falls along the Gorge Overlook Trail. Here, you’ll get a front and center view of Cane Creek Falls famous swimming hole and a peek at its next door neighbor, Rockhouse Falls. At 125 feet in height, Rockhouse Falls is the second tallest waterfall in the park, cascading over its namesake “rockhouse” at the bottom of the canyon.
The best way to reach the bottom of the gorge is to hike a portion of the Paw Paw Trail and Woodland Trail to a small spur, named the Cable Trail. The Cable Trails 0.10 mile length deceives the fact that it descends nearly 125 feet in that short distance. Hikers must use an anchored cable to climb down the 45 degree slope that’s known for its loose and slippery rock. At one point halfway down, hikers must leave the safety of the cable to “free solo” their way around some trees, before making their way back to the cable. It is an exhilarating trail and nothing like this exists anywhere else in the state outside of the Great Smoky Mountains. To date no one has been seriously injured traversing down this trail, but it is still considered quite treacherous. Those not interested in descending the canyon can still enjoy some of the gorgeous cascades along Rockhouse Creek just before it plunges over the falls.
Feeding into the larger Cane Creek Falls is its upstream companion, Cane Creek Cascades. Just before crossing the 200 feet long suspension bridge, a short spur trail appears on the far RIGHT, taking visitors down to the base of this 30 feet tall waterfall. Its’ 60 feet wide crest makes it the widest in the park. If any millennial out there thinks this view looks familiar, well that’s because it was a primary filming location in Disneys 1994 film,”The Jungle Book”. This live-action adaptation of Rudyard Kiplings novel features a dressed up Cane Creek Cascades and its original suspension bridge with elephants surrounding it. At one point in the movie Mowgli, played by Jason Scott Lee, can be seen running across Cane Creek Cascades, before making his way down the rapids and taking a dramatic jump off the top of Cane Creek Falls. Another scene in the movie of a hidden temple in the jungle was created using a panoramic shot of the Cane Creek Gorge from Millikan Overlook. The nearby Lost Creek Falls and Cave were also heavily featured in the movie.
Want More Waterfalls?
While these are some of the most majestic waterfalls within Fall Creek Falls State Park, I also suggest exploring two more little known areas famous for waterfall chasing just outside the main park. Located in the newly acquired parcels at the far norther end of the park, the 1.50 mile Wheeler Farm Loop features three wet-weather waterfalls ranging from 25-65 feet high, including Wheeler Falls. With a little more research, hikers can also attempt to find the massive Medley Arch hidden in these cliffs. A few miles north of that is the trailhead for the 3.0 mile Prater Place Trail (also known as Camps Gulf). This out and back trail travels through the steep and narrow valley of Camps Gulf Branch to the wide fanning cascades of Hemlock Falls. Along the way you can also catch a glimpse of several more waterfalls known to appear in the valley during the wet season.
Up next, we’ll be departing Fall Creek Falls State Park and heading north in search of the awe inspiring Lost Creek Falls. One of the easiest waterfalls in the region to reach, all it takes is a short walk from the road to see Lost Creek Falls 60 foot plunge. The Lost Creek State Natural Area also features one of the largest caves in Tennessee, Lost Creek Cave. With five entrances and over seven miles of mapped passages, this is one of the few recreational caves open to the public. Stay tuned as we keep exploring the hidden gems of Middle Tennessee and as always, see y’all on the trails!