a guide to the waterfalls of the tennessee cumberland plateau

It’s no surprise that I think Tennessee is one of the overall best states in the country. Waterfalls help that cause.

Growing up in Northwest Indiana, I thought that waterfalls were inseparable from mountains, like huge mountains. So, when I found out that there were waterfalls littering the Tennessee portion of the Cumberland Plateau, I made it my mission to visit as many as possible. Each one is completely different and has it’s pros and cons.  I want to share my extensive research with you (which really just means I visited a lot of them).

Burgess Falls

Burgess Falls is a state park in Sparta, TN east of Nashville on I-40.

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There is a short hike to get to the base of the lower falls, but to keep to you company on the way, there are three other smaller waterfalls before getting to the beauty you see in the photo above.  The hike is only a 1.5 miles roundtrip, but it’s a bit steep in some places, nothing that you won’t be able to handle though. Plus, you can climb all over the rocks to get to the base of the falls and have the spray from the water gently mist you and close your eyes and daydream for a second that you aren’t in Tennessee.

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Pros:

  • so many waterfalls in such a short distance
  • “wow” factor (especially considering you are in middle Tennessee)
  • great hike
  • swimming/exploring once you get to the base of the falls

Cons:

  • no choice of trails
  • can get a bit crowded, especially on the weekends

Cummins Falls

Cummins Falls is a new state park in Cookeville, TN also east of Nashville on I-40, about 30 minutes north of Burgess Falls.


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It boasts one of the top 10 Best Swimming Holes in America, according to Travel and Leisure magazine.  To actually get to climb on the waterfall, you have to swim across to it. The water is chilly but clear. Since it is a relatively new state park, it seems a bit more rustic, which I personally love.  The trial is mildly steep and you get to wade through the stream in order to get to the falls.  You get to work for the view and the swimming hole.  It’s completely lovely.  You can also kind of forge your own trial by bouldering (safely, of course) up a rock face on the trial to get back up to where you started.

Pros:

  • awesome, challenging hike
  • less crowded
  • great swimming hole
  • plenty of space to explore

Cons:

  • can be a little dangerous if you aren’t prepared

Fall Creek Falls

Fall Creek Falls State Park is about 2 1/2 hours east of Nashville in Pikeville, TN.

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Fall Creek Falls is the highest free fall waterfall east of the Mississippi.  I’ve been wanting to go ever since I heard of this statistic.  But, to tell you the truth, I wasn’t impressed.  I mean, sure, it’s a long drop, but it’s not nearly as beautiful as the other waterfalls in this post.  The park is a lot bigger than the others, so there are more things to do and more trails to hike.  There is also a 13 mile overnight trail, which I haven’t done so I can’t attest to the quality, but Fall Creek Falls gets points just for having one.

Pros:

  • plenty of hiking trails
  • good hike down to the base of the falls

Cons:

  • SO crowded because it’s a popular state park
  • not as beautiful, to me

Rutledge Falls

Rutledge Falls is located in Tullahoma, TN just over an hour south west of Nashville off of I-24.  The directions are a little dicey but its basically right across the street from Rutledge Falls Baptist Church, where you’ll see a faded sign with “rules” and a little gravel pull off.


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Rutledge Falls is on private property.  It’s in someone’s backyard, literally.  You walk this path through their property to the falls. There’s not hike involved, which might be a positive for some, especially if small children are involved in the trip.  It’s not a particularly high waterfall, but it’s a great space to climb and walk on the falls.  However, BE CAREFUL.  The rocks here are some of the slipperiest I’ve ever encountered.  I wiped out so many times.  The water is pretty, but perfect for a hot day, or perfect for when you slip on a rock and tumble into the water against your will (which way or may not have happened to me).  It’s not a huge space so it seems kind of crowded with only a handful of people there.

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Pros:

  • space to climb and wade in the falls (see photo above)
  • off the beaten path

Cons:

  • Literally, it’s just a waterfall, no hiking trails or anything fancy like that
  • so slippery and could potentially be dangerous

Short Springs Natural Area

Now, I’m going to share one of my favorite places, and it’s kind of a secret, hidden gem so don’t go blabbing to the whole world, ok?  The only reason I found out about Short Springs is because a guy at Rutledge Falls told us about it and gave us directions like “turn left at the abandoned market”.  But, aren’t those places the best places?


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As you can see, this place is absolutely magical. The beautiful, cascading Machine Falls are an untouched treasure.  What you don’t see in this photo is that across from the falls, you are surrounded by carved out shale overhang. It just feels so secluded. We saw a total of 3 people while we were there.  There are a couple different hiking trials (unfortunately I didn’t get to explore those, YET).  There’s plenty of space at these falls to sit and it would be a great spot to bring a lunch to.  The rocks aren’t NEARLY as slippery as Rutledge, therefore, I felt much safe exploring here.

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Pros:

  • secluded, untouched, beautiful
  • great hiking trials that are attainable for all adventurer levels
  • so much space to climb and explore
  • not crowded AT ALL

Cons:

  • no place to swim (but who really cares when it’s so beautiful and maybe you don’t even care to swim)

Even if you don’t live in the area, I encourage you to find out what your area’s “thing” is.  I think state parks are generally underrated and you can find great adventures within an hour of wherever you are, whether it’s mountains, lakes, rivers, or cornfields, find beauty and explore what’s right in front of you.

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