If you’re an outdoor enthusiast you won’t soon run out of new places to explore in the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee. Within an hour drive of a city called Cookeville you will find several State Parks and waterfall hikes. If you are looking for waterfall hikes near Cookeville, I have taken the time to list out 5 of my favorites within a short drive.
The Cumberland Plateau and Upper Cumberland Region is a beautiful part of the state of Tennessee. Cookeville is right in the heart of it all. Cookeville is also the largest city you’ll find between Nashville and Knoxville. In addition, it’s home to Tennessee Tech University.
Coming in at the 23rd largest city in the state, as of 2018 the population of Cookeville is right around 33,000. Around Cookeville you’ll find a cluster of beautiful state parks, not to mention you’re just a 2-3 hour drive from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Let’s dive into the waterfalls near Cookeville.
Our 5 favorite waterfall hikes near Cookeville, TN
1. Cummins Falls State Park
Distance from Cookeville: 15-20 min
There is a nice reward at the end of this hike. As you can see from the picture above, there is a beautiful cascading waterfall and a rather large swimming hole. This used to be one of Middle Tennessee’s lesser known swimming holes and if you knew about it then you were one of the lucky ones. Now it is usually jam packed everyday when it is nice out. Now you can still swim here and have a great time, don’t get me wrong. Just prepare for a crowd.
Litter has become somewhat of a problem in and around the swimming hole and falls. Not everyone respects the beauty or potential dangers of Cummins Falls. There have been several deaths and many injuries in recent years. It’s worth going to this awesome natural swimming pool and in my opinion you can even take the kids, just be prepared, be careful, and respect the park.
The main hike to the falls and swimming area is through the river. So you will get very wet on the way there. The hike from the parking lot to the falls takes about 45 min to an hour. The water is not too high usually but if it has rained recently and the water is fast, then please skip it. Go another time.
However if the water is fairly calm and low, then take your time and it’s a straight shot to the falls. You will most likely be walking along many other people. There are a couple of items you may want to invest in to make this hike a little easier on you.
- A good pair of water shoes – you will probably be fine in an old pair of sneakers but they will most likely be ruined and need to be thrown out afterwards.
- A hiking pole or stick – it can be easy to lose your balance on a rocky bottom with a mild current. The first time I went to Cummins I did not have one but the second time I did and it made a huge difference and probably saved me from busting my butt more than once.
2. Burgess Falls State Park
Distance from Cookeville: about 20 min
Burgess Falls is a much bigger and more impressive waterfall than Cummins. You can really get some great pictures here if you are a photographer or even an amateur phone photographer like me. I let my daughter use one of my cameras to try out her photography skills.
You can hike down to the lookout for a quick peak at the falls, or hike on down the steps and be right on top of the falls. There are also stairs leading all the way down to beneath the falls. However, the last time I was at the Burgess the steps to below the falls were shut down with no access. This was probably June of 2018 so I’m not sure if or when that will open back up.
The main hike down to the lookout point and the falls is relatively easy and good for kids in my opinion. The hike is only about a mile or so and there is some beautiful scenery so bring a camera. There are quite a few steps so wear some comfortable walking shoes or boots. The trail shoes I link to in this post would be a great choice. Just don’t show up in flip-flops like I’ve seen people do before.
This is the best hike for kids on this list in my opinion. It doesn’t take too long, there is a playground nearby if I remember correctly, so if someone starts complaining you can use that as a bargaining tool (and I did hah). There are a few other smaller trails off of the main trail, but they are underwhelming and I never bother with them anymore.
Once you have made your way down and back up past the lookout again, you can either go all the way back the way you came or opt for a gravel road that leads straight back to the parking lot. We usually take the shortcut and then have a foot race, which I always win!
If you are visiting the area and looking for a short waterfall hike with your kids then Burgess Falls is probably the one you want. It’s one of my favorites and I’ve been coming here since I was a kid.
3. Fall Creek Falls State Park
Distance from Cookeville: 45 – 50 min
Fall Creek Falls is the highest falls east of the Mississippi River and the largest waterfall in Tennessee. There are other falls that are actually taller, but the free fall of water not hitting any rocks is what makes this the highest. You can see at the top it has one drop where it hits rocks and then free falls off the rest of the way which is probably 200′ or more. If the water is flowing nicely it can be a beautiful sight. The last time I was here there was very little flow and it was barely a trickle.
The park itself is pretty large and there is a lot to do other than the hike to the falls. Here you can get some ideas of other things to do in the park. You can rent a cabin nearby and spend the weekend zip-lining, hiking and exploring the park.
The park is home to 56 miles of hiking trails of varying lengths from easy to strenuous. There are even a couple of overnight trails for the more hardcore hikers. I believe the hike all the way to the main falls is about 3 miles round trip and is rated for beginners. However you should be able to take a short walk from the parking lot to an overlook where you can get a glimpse at the falls.
There are a total of 14 trails ranging from a 14 mile overnight trail to a .2 mile easy walk. There should be something for every level of hiker. Families with children and lone hikers alike will have plenty to do in this wonderful 25,000 acre State Park.
4. Virgin Falls State Natural Area
Distance from Cookeville: 45 – 50 min
Virgin Falls State Natural Area actually has 2 large waterfalls and a couple of other smaller ones. There is one at the midway point, Big Laurel Falls (see image below), and then the main falls (image above) at the end of the 4.3 mile hike.
If you have kids in tow then maybe hiking to Laurel Falls and back is a good idea for you. That is still a 4 mile round trip hike and I would consider it moderately strenuous. I went with a group of adults and kids a couple of years ago and we did just this. By the time we were half way back some of the kids were getting very tired and I’m glad we did not go the whole way to the main falls.
This waterfall is pretty cool in itself even if you make this your turn around point. There is a really neat cave you can go in under the falls that you can see from this picture I took. It doesn’t go too far back but there is a low spot near the back where the water goes underground. I’ve been told this cavern can fill with water if there is enough rain.
If it’s exceptionally hot out, this is a great place to stand under the water and just soak yourself for a few minutes. Also a good place for a snack or water break. The cave is usually very muddy though, so if you or your kids go in there do yourself a favor and do not slip and fall or even sit down unless you enjoy mud all over your clothes!
Laurel Falls about 2 miles in
Virgin falls is the main waterfall of course and is right at 4.3 miles from the trailhead. If you take the loop to the sheep cave, the whole hike may end up closer to 9 miles round trip. Especially after you make the small hike around to the top of the falls. The sheep cave was not that interesting to me. If you are just out exploring then go for it, it doesn’t take that long.
Once you reach the main falls, you will see some more campsites and kind of an overlook area. There are lots of good spots around to plop down and eat your lunch or snacks. From here you can venture down to the falls and catch a heavy yet cool misting. The bottom is very wet and very rocky When those two are combined you get the optimal environment for busting your butt on wet rocks. So be careful if you hike down.
You can also hike up and around to the top of the falls and see the water source of the falls flowing out of a cave.
Virgin Falls State Natural Area is one of my favorite, if not my favorite hikes in Middle Tennessee. It is rated strenuous and at 8.6 miles round trip is not for you if you are too out of shape. The whole there and back took me right around 4 hours or so last time I went.
The terrain is very rough, there are tons of rocks and roots. It can be rather easy to turn your ankle and come out with a limp. So make deliberate steps and wear some good hiking boots or trail shoes to protect your feet and support your ankles. There are also many natural stone steps and mild climbing you will have to do so be prepared for that as well.
Unless you are a pretty adept hiker, you will most likely be a bit winded on the way back. It’s a good half day hike. So pack a lunch, get there at around 9 or 10 in the morning. Eat lunch at the main falls and then head back. On a hike this long be sure to take plenty of water to stay hydrated.
5. Rock Island State Park
Distance from Cookeville – 40 – 45 min
Twin Falls was created when the Caney Fork river was dammed up. You can read more about how the dam was made and how the falls were formed here.
Great Falls is a cascading waterfall and is only about 30 ft high. These are some of my favorite falls in the area. You should really check them out if you have the time.
Rock Island State Park is 883 acres and is directly south of Cookeville going down Hwy 111. Here you can find cabins to rent, camping, fishing, a natural sand beach in beautiful Center Hill Lake for swimming. There is also plenty of fishing and places for picnicking.
The hike to Twin Falls is only a mile round trip. It is rated as beginner or easy, and should be suitable for any level of hiker. The park has a total of 9 trails for your hiking pleasure. The Caney Fork Gorge can be found below the dam, there you can find Great Blue Herons, wildflowers and waterfalls. The Caney Fork Gorge may be accessed via the Old Mill Trail or the Upstream Trail. You can find a full list of all hiking trails in the park here.