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Trail Guides

Waterfalls Galore at Short Springs Natural Area in Middle Tennessee

Short springs natural area waterfall hiking trails Tennessee state parks Machine falls busby falls


As one of the least visited parks in the state, Short Springs State Natural Area is a hidden gem in Middle Tennessee. Located in Coffee County at the base of Normandy Lake, its 420-acres of protected forests are a haven for rare wildflowers, steep cliffs and stunning waterfalls. Of its four major waterfalls, Machine Falls 60 foot plunge, emanating from a hidden cave, is thought to be one of the most beautiful in the region. With over 5 miles of hiking trails exploring the unique geology of Tennessee’s Highland Rim and Central Basin, there is plenty here to make it a worthwhile day trip destination.

Machine Falls Trail | 1.60 Miles

Busby Falls Loop | 0.70 Miles

Adams Falls Trail | 1.10 Miles

Short Springs State Natural Area Trail Map

Short Springs State Natural Area Location | Google Maps

With Tennessees abundant natural beauty, it can sometimes be a challenge all on its own to figure out where to go on your next adventure. On a recent trip to Nashville, I compiled a list of exciting new parks to explore surrounding the metro area which included Old Stone Fort State Archeological Park, Rutledge Falls, Short Springs State Natural Area, and Harpeth River State Park. Located in rural Coffee County, Short Springs has been a well guarded secret amongst photographers and waterfall chasers for its untold number of wet-weather waterfalls and lush forested scenery. As of recently, the outdoor community has also taken note of its rehabilitated hiking trails and began flocking here to rediscover this little known hidden gem.

Short springs natural area waterfall hiking trails Tennessee state parks 

Entrance to Short Springs State Natural Area

The entrance to Short Springs State Natural Area can be found at the intersection of Short Springs Rd and Powell Rd. There is a sizable parking lot accommodation a dozen or so vehicles which tends to fill up quickly during the summer months. Unfortunately, there are no other access points into the park so if the lot is full then you might have to return at a later time. Crossing Short Springs Rd and entering the park, you’re immediately thrust onto the Machine Falls Trail. This 1.60 mile loop will take you to Machine Falls regardless of which direction you take, but the most direct route is STRAIGHT AHEAD. From here it is a 0.65 mile journey directly to the waterfall, which is what most people visiting Short Springs State Natural Area are interested in seeing.

 Short springs natural area waterfall hiking trails Tennessee state parks

Busby Falls Trail (0.70 Miles)

As for us, we’re looking forward to exploring all of the different landmarks in the park including Upper & Lower Busby Falls, Machine Falls, and Adams Falls. So we continue to the first bend in the trail where reach another major trailhead junction with more access points. From here, we will be jumping on the 0.70 mile Busby Falls Trail which in turn leads to the 1.50 mile Laurel Bluff Loop. Both trails lead to different perspectives of this large waterfall, one from above the other from below. Though half the height and scope of Machine Falls, Busby Falls has a magnificent aura of its own and its little visited cove makes for a much more serene experience. Being early September, the forest is beginning to show signs of summers end with late season wildflowers past their peak slowly fading everywhere we look. A lot of the deep greens found in this towering forest of sycamore, beech, and poplar are also giving way to the arrival of fall. 


Short springs natural area waterfall hiking trails Tennessee state parks Busby falls machine falls trail

Lower and Upper Busby Falls (30’ ft)

At roughly 0.25 mile in on the Busby Falls Trail, we reach the edge of Bobo Creek with its 40 foot deep ravine. This is the only way to access the Laurel Bluff Trail which leads to an up close view of Lower Busby Falls and several wet weather waterfalls that appear seasonally further down this watershed. To our amazement, a recent storm had dropped several large trees atop the newly built bridge crossing, destroying a swath of it. Still in different stages of disrepair, it was wrapped in “caution tape” to keep people from crossing. The staircase beside the bridge which leads to the original stream crossing fitted with wooden plank boards was also damaged and covered by large debris. With this being the only safe crossing within several miles, we decided to opt for the overhead views found along the rest of Busby Falls Trail. The falls themselves are named for Thomas Busby, an early pioneer who built a house and grist mill on this creek in the early 1800’s. 

 Short springs natural area waterfall hiking trails Tennessee state parks Busby falls

Aside from grinding corn and wheat for local residents, the wheel also generated power for his cabin, which was a new phenomenon at the time. Busby later sold the mill to Lecil Bobo, who kept it in operation until 1850. This trail can be confusing to follow since it is poorly marked and criss-crossed with user made paths leading out to numerous overhead views of the falls below. It can also be a dangerous place to explore due to heavy erosion, with sudden 60 foot drops into the ravine below running parallel to the trail. At first I could only find a few lackluster views of Upper Busby Falls, with most of it being too overgrown to see very well. After a short distance I found a picture perfect view of the final crest of Lower Busby Falls. With all of the recent rains, Busby Falls had a great flow, making it a bittersweet experience not being able to see its entirety up close. 


Short springs natural area waterfall hiking trails Tennessee state parks Machine falls

Machine Falls Trail (1.60 Mile Loop)

Climbing in and out of several dry ravines towards the end of the Busby Falls Trail, we end up meeting back up with the continuation of the Machine Falls Trail. On the way to the falls there is a 0.10 mile Connector Trail that acts as a shortcut between the longer loop and crosses over the top of Machine Falls. Right before reaching the descent into the ravine, there is a side trail leading out to a cliff where crews are building a platform with panoramic views of Machine Falls and the valley below. Most of the improvements being made here have been through a concerted effort between The Tennessee Natural Areas Program, Tennessee Valley Authority, City of Tullahoma, and Friends of Short Springs. Despite having official protection as a designated state natural area since 1994, Short Springs still faces continuing pressure from nearby development, the possible raising of Normandy Dam, and general usage that require the diligence and oversight of volunteers.

Short springs natural area waterfall hiking trails Tennessee state parks Machine falls trail 

The Friends of Short Springs in particular are responsible for spearheading many of the parks improvements we get to enjoy today, including the most direct route to Machine Falls via the 200 foot descent to the valley floor. Walking towards the tip of a finger-like ridge, one has to carefully maneuver down a series of staircases and stone ledges that seem to go on forever till you reach the lower banks of Machine Branch. Once on the valley floor, turn RIGHT (DO NOT CROSS THE BRIDGE) and double back up the creek about 70 yards to the base of Machine Falls. Assuming the waterfall has a decent flow, there won’t be a dry trail leading up to it so you have to be prepared to walk through ankle, if not shin deep water to reach Machine Falls. Trust me, its worth it.

 Short springs natural area waterfall hiking trails Tennessee state parks Machine falls trail

With so many waterfalls of every shape and size found in Tennessee, it can be hard to pick a favorite, but Machine Falls commonly ranks in the top 10 for its awesome beauty. Part of the charm of this 60 foot high waterfall is how the stream pours not just from the precipice of a cliff, but through a hollow channel from within the rock itself. Each of its three separate drops are fascinating to study. Half of the stream tumbles from a narrow cliff (first drop) onto a long ledge below where it meets the rest of the stream traveling through the underground channel. From there, the water fans out over a 50 foot wide cascade (second drop) that daintily drips over hundreds of layers of stacked rock. This water is then consolidated into a sizably large natural pool where it eventually empties over a still impressive 10 foot wide cascade (third drop). 

 Short springs natural area waterfall hiking trails Tennessee state parks Machine falls trail

What we are looking at is exposed black Chattanooga shale. This is visibly one of the main formations that delineates Tennessees Central Basin from the Highland Rim. Thickets of mountain laurel seen along the Laurel Bluff and Busby Falls Trail grow under a dry oak-hickory forest canopy that is characteristic of Highland Rim vegetation. In the spring, these higher elevated areas are covered in trout lilies, Virginia bluebells, jack-in-the-pulpit, larkspur, and Dutchman's breeches. The lower slopes and riparian areas along Bobo Creek support towering sycamore, buckeye, magnolia, beech, and tulip poplar trees with a rich shrub layer and herbaceous cover. Opposite the Machine Falls Trails, along the lower banks of Bobo Creek is the 0.10 mile Wildflower Loop, which purportedly puts on a fantastic display each spring. In order to add an extra layer of protection for this special landscape, the state created the 60-acre Short Springs Small Wild Area in the heart of the natural area.

Short springs natural area waterfall hiking trails Tennessee state parks Machine falls 

Adams Falls Trail (1.10 Mile Loop)

With visiting Machine Falls “in the bag”, all that is left to do is go check out Adams Falls. Walking back in the direction that we approached Machine Falls from, we reached the wooden bridge and this time crossed over it to begin the journey to Adams Falls. This short 0.10 mile connector is one of the toughest parts of todays hike. A narrow path barely wide enough for one person to navigate, it quickly ascends 100 feet to a series of bluffs on the parks northern boundary. At the top of the climb, you’ll reach the start of the 1.10 mile Adams Falls Trail Loop. The most direct path to this waterfall is along the LEFT trail. Walking parallel to the edge of some steep cliffs, there are a few breaks in the foliage to see some stunning vistas of Normandy Lake off in the distance. The views here really open up during winter. After about 0.50 mile, we reach the point where Adams Falls should be. 

 Short springs natural area waterfall hiking trails Tennessee state parks Adams falls machine falls

There is a path leading from the main trail down to an overlook of a dry creek with a staggered, double drop totaling 25-30 feet that should be Adams Falls. At one point in time this could have been a significant waterfall and maybe with some heavy, consistent rain it may even come to life seasonally, but not today. By all of the information I could find online, there seems to be A LOT of confusion as to where, what, and which waterfall is the real Adams Falls. By all accounts, this dry cliff is Adams Falls. From the overlook, we could hear the sound of rushing water nearby, so turning away from the dry creek and glancing down to the bottom left, we spotted a full fledged waterfall. Located halfway up a steep ravine, the mystery waterfall dropped roughly 15 feet as it gently cascaded over an exposed rock outcropping. Though not technically Adams Falls, it’ll satisfy my curiosity and end todays excursion at Short Springs. Hopefully a return visit during the wetter season will give us an opportunity to see Busby Falls up close and the real Adams Falls flowing nicely.

 Short springs natural area waterfall hiking trails Tennessee state parks Machine falls Adam falls

Up next, we’re headed northwest of Nashville to visit Harpeth River State Park. The 115 mile long Harpeth River is one of the major tributaries of the Cumberland River and one of the best paddling streams in Middle Tennessee. Harpeth River State Park manages nine river access sites along a 40 mile stretch and also contains several hiking trails leading to natural and historic sites. The 1.1 mile Narrows of Harpeth Trail takes visitors on a tour of a man-made tunnel and waterfall, while also offering access to a series of bluffs with panoramic views of the surrounding area, including the Mound Bottom Archeological Site. Stay tuned as we explore this unique area just outside the states capitol and as always, see y’all on the trails!


Friends of Short Springs

Tennessee Encyclopedia


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