With over 100 waterfalls, the Upper Cumberland Area is known to be among the highest concentrations of waterfalls in the United States. Located on the low side of the 20,000+ square-mile Cumberland Plateau, much of the rain that falls on the plateau drains west – – into the Upper Cumberland. As the water pours over the Cumberland escarpment it creates ribbons of white froth that attracts tourists from all over the world.
While some of these falls are in such remote areas that even seasoned hikers can barely make it in and out in a day, most of the falls are readily available within a short walk from a parking lot or road, and in one case, there is a spectacular waterfall that is viewable from your automobile.
One can easily see Five waterfalls in five hours (or less) while traveling in the Upper Cumberland. A good example of one such trip includes some of the Upper Cumberland’s favorite falls. We will start from the North and work our way South.
The first stop, Cummins Falls, the eighth-highest waterfall in Tennessee. Cummins Falls became a state park in 2011 and has become one of the most visited waterfalls in the state. Cummins is also a measurable example of the economic impact of tourism. The year that the signs went up marking the new state park, sales-tax in Baxter Tennessee jumped 20%. Cummins is a 2-drop waterfall. Blackburn Fork plunges 50 feet into a pool, then cascades 25 more feet into a second pool. Branded as one of the top-ten swimming holes in the US by Travel & Leisure Magazine, Cummins Falls attracts families from miles and even states away to enjoy the cool waters while viewing a beautiful waterfall from the plunge pools.
Next in line is Burgess Falls State Park. A horizontal pinnacle of rock almost creates a split in the Falling Water River at the top of the falls. Many a tourist has commented that Burgess Falls reminds them of a smaller version of Niagara Falls. From any angle, the falls is breathtaking. At ¾ of a mile, the trail to the main waterfalls is the longest hike in this day trip. Even easier access can be granted if you ask the ranger but you will miss a smaller falls if you don’t take the trail. The falls drop 136 feet and then the river continues a short distance into Center Hill Lake. The bottom of the falls is approachable by kayak from the Cane Hollow Access point on Center Hill. Burgess Falls nets over 400,000 visitors per year.
Barely 21 miles south of Burgess Falls State Park, the Twin Falls overlook at Rock Island is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the area. The water emanates from caves in a hillside and cascades eighty feet into the Class V waters of the Caney Fork River. Twin Falls is among the broadest of waterfalls in the state. Seemingly unaffected by drought, the falls has roughly the same volume year-round. Even in the driest summers when other falls wane, you can count on Twin Falls to be spectacular. A little-known plus on this waterfall; it is equally spectacular during a full moon. The white froth created by the cascade glares bright when the moon is high. Twin Falls was accidentally created in 1925 when a dam was built on the Caney Fork River. The lake that formed backed water into the nearby Collins River, as the water rose it found its way through caves in the hillside. What a beautiful mistake.
Less than seven miles by road, and still in Rock Island State Park, Great Falls lies curiously upstream of Twin Falls yet downstream of the dam that created the latter. Escher could not have produced a more confusing combination. The same Class V waters that flow over Great Falls, flows in front of Twin Falls which makes a great backdrop for the thousands of whitewater kayakers who come to Tennessee to try one of Eric Jackson’s favorite runs. In fact, this white-water is so good it has been the site of three international kayak competitions in eight years. While beautiful to view, the falls can create an adrenaline rush if you are lucky enough to be there when a crazed kayaker attempts the 30’ vertical drop.
The 23-mile drive from Great Falls to Lost Creek is worth the travel even if there were no waterfalls. The parking area for Lost Creek was created by Walt Disney in-order-to get the filming equipment into the sink for the remake of “The Jungle Book.” This waterfall has no incoming or outgoing stream. The water emerges from a cave, drops 60’ and appears to be absorbed by the rocky soil below. Efforts involving Americorps and Tennessee State Parks have resulted in a series of well-laid steps built into the hillside making the 800’ trail accessible to almost everyone. On the opposite side of the giant sink is one of the largest cave entrances in the state. While descending to the falls, you will experience a drastic temperature change from the air emerging from Lost Creek Cave. As odd as the anomaly of a waterfall with no stream leading in or out is; there are five such waterfalls in a four-mile stretch. What better reason could there be to return to the Upper Cumberland to see more waterfalls.
Bonus Content: Listen to Journeys of Discover where NPR Correspondent, Tom Wilmer visits with Becky Magura, CEO of PBS affiliate WCTE in the Appalachian town of Cookeville in central Tennessee.