River Trail | 0.50 Miles
Upper Trail | 0.46 Miles
Ridgetop Trail | 0.25 Miles
With over 800 documented waterfalls throughout Tennessee, you’re never far from the 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.
Burgess Falls State Park had to be one of the most pleasantly surprising stops on our waterfalls roadtrip through Middle Tennessee. Not only was this tiny state park beautifully maintained, but before arriving I had no idea that there were several other large waterfalls here beside Burgess Falls. Expecting to simply find a few walkout overlooks from the parking lot, we were excited to discover just how pleasantly challenging the 0.50 mile River Trail was. Not too easy, but hard enough to make you feel like you earned those incredible picture worthy overlooks. Located a mere 20 minutes outside of the City of Cookeville, the park has been a beloved vacationing and weekend picnic spot for nearby residents since the early 1800’s. Today both sides of the river gorge, culminating 350 acres, are protected by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, including the separate 275 acre Window Cliffs State Natural Area located 7 miles away.
Falling Water Cascades
The trek to see all of the parks waterfalls, including the stunning 130 foot Burgess Falls, begins at the parking lot trailhead for the 0.50 mile long River Trail. Walking down to the banks of the Falling Water River, we encounter a group of swimmers lounging in the shallows above and below the first waterfall on our hike, Falling Water Cascades. With easy access to a dozen isolated natural pools deep enough to sit in and lounge back on, this is by far the family favorite. The drawn out cascades measure roughly 20 feet in height from its precipice to where it finally ends its run. In the waterfall world, this ones a freebie. Climbing up the steps, we begin the eventual 243 foot ascent along the edge of this massive gorge carved over millions of years by the rapids of the Falling Water River.
This 30 mile long river is a north-east branch of the Caney Fork of the Cumberland River which has its source high up in the Cumberland Mountains. Using ancient Native American Trails, the first European settlers entered the area of White County just after the Revolutionary War. Originally a territorial part of colonial North Carolina, large tracts of land in Middle Tennessee were deeded to Revolutionary War soldiers as payment for their service, including future president Andrew Jackson. According to the compiled history of White County, Tennessee, the area was inhabited by a band of Cherokee led by Chief Calf Killer, with a village situated in the protected valley where the town of Sparta currently resides. For centuries this region was shared by Creek, Chickasaw, and Cherokee for its plentiful game and natural resources. Following the Treaty of Holston in 1791, the establishment of Tennessee as a state in 1796, and the Treaty of 1819 in which the Cherokee Nation ceded all land in current day Tennessee to the United States, most indigenous people had been forcibly removed from this area leaving it wide open to frontier settlement.
It was during this time period that a Revolutionary War veteran named Tom Burgess built a homestead on the grounds of Burgess Falls State Park in 1810. Like many self sufficient pioneers, the Burgess family used the river's rapids to power a grist mill and eventually a saw mill which supplied nearby settlers with corn meal and lumber. In 1924, the City of Cookeville built an earthen dam along the river a mile or so upstream from Burgess Falls. After a flood destroyed the dam in 1928, the city replaced it with a concrete dam and a hydroelectric power house which supplied nearby residents with electricity. Evidence of this early history can still be seen when you reach the second waterfall on our journey, Little Falls.
From the trail, Little Falls 30 foot drop is somewhat obscured by foliage. Despite its name, this waterfall is fascinating to look out at, especially when you notice what’s dangling overhead. As if straight from the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the deteriorated remnants of a 100 year old suspension bridge dangle precariously over the waterfall. At first your mind races to conjure up images of people traveling across from one end to the other, but in reality it was never really used for that. Connected from our side of the cliffs to that of the opposite side of the gorge, this bridge held a massive flume which funneled water from the river up to the nearby powerhouse. The pipeline criss-crossed the river twice, once here and a second time near the following waterfall, Middle Falls.
Middle Falls (Big Falls)
To reach the overlook over Middle Falls, you first have to traverse over the muddiest part of the River Trail which contains several smaller wet-weather waterfalls of its own. During periods of heavy rain, one waterfall in particular cascades down a limestone chute on the hillside to your left, funneling under a wooden bridge as it empties into the river below. After tip toeing through this mess, hikers must then trudge the steep and unrelenting climb up to the overlook. Using fragments of rocks and tree roots to get a good foot holding, this section of the River Trail accounts for most of the 243 feet of ascents and descents on the entire trail. On a busy day at the park, you can expect to wait a few minutes in line for you turn up or down as this section is barely wide enough to accommodate two people at a time. Going up is a little bit easier because you get to use the wood railing on your right handsome for leverage, but coming down is a whole other story.
The good news is that at the top, the overlook contains several benches where you can give your feet a rest while you take on the beautiful sight. Back in 2016, massive floods throughout the park completely washed away this previously dirt overlook, causing the park to rebuild a much nicer and sturdier wood platform here. From the top of the cliff the size of this waterfall can seem deceptively small and gentle in nature. In reality, this wide fanning cascade has a tremendous 80 foot drop. Here at Middle Falls the river briefly turns to the north amidst a series of small vegetated islands where waterfowl can often times be seen. Aside from all the waterfalls, Burgess Falls State Park is also known for containing over 300 species of trees and plants, plus an abundance of wildlife. Paying a visit here during March, visitors can expect to see a colorful wildflower display that includes; mayapple, Jack-in-the-pulpit, trilliums, eastern red columbines, bluets, and saxifrage.
The forests surrounding both sides of the gorge hosts a rich variety of woodland birds, bringing in birders from all across the country. The sounds of songbirds chirping from the parks year round residents such as the Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, and Carolina Chickadee can be heard all throughout this hike. Burgess Falls is also home to breeding colonies of Red-eyed Vireo, Scarlet Tanager, and Ovenbirds. Part of what brings these creatures here is the rich biodiversity found within the Cumberland Plateaus Eastern Highland Rim, of which Burgess Falls cascades from. Thanks to the high levels of moisture present amongst the sheer bluffs and narrow ridges from all of the waterfalls, the River Trail is surrounded by a very particular type of humid-sub tropical forest. Found mostly within a narrow sliver of the Appalachian Mountain Range throughout Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, mixed mesophytic forests are known for their deep soils containing cucumber trees, eastern hemlock, umbrella magnolia, plus numerous oaks and hickories.
After all of the ups and downs of this trail, it’s a short 0.16 mile from the Middle Falls Overlook to the Burgess Falls Overlook. Here, a large suspended platform extends out over the cliff for a full frontal view of the 130 foot plunge of Burgess Falls. On a particularly windy day, you can feel the mist as it rises up from this 250 foot deep gorge. Looking down at the bottom of the falls, groups of kayakers, canoers, and boaters are crowded around the banks of the river as visitors take a break to swim in the falls natural pool. The park regularly organizes floating trips to the bottom of the falls as do the various outfitters in the area. Alternatively a short, but very steep path known as the Big Falls Trail leads down to the top of the falls. After the devastating floods of 2016 completely destroyed this platform overlook and a staircase leading down to the bottom of the falls, state park officials decided to completely close off access to the bottom falls overlook for good. Even so, the views from up top are mind blowing and worth all of the effort to reach.
As great as our visit to Burgess Falls State Park has been, this is still only the beginning of our waterfalls roadtrip. Up next, we’ll be headed down the road to see one of the more interesting waterfalls in Tennessee found within Rock Island State Park. I’ll be checking out an overlook of Great Falls and climbing down to the base of the awe inspiring Twin Falls. This legendary waterfall is known for its 80 foot drop emanating from the side of a cliff as opposed to the top of it. Stay tune and as always, see y’all on the trails!