Soothe your soul with a daytrip waterfall tour
Some of the most picturesque waterfalls in the South are a daytrip from Nashville.
Something about the sound of falling water is soothing to the soul. After a stressful week at work, my family decided to unwind with a self-guided tour of Middle Tennessee’s beautiful waterfalls.
We had a few requirements for our adventure. The falls must be within a one-day round trip in the car. They needed to have hiking trails to help us escape and a few conveniences to ease us back into civilization.
Many of the region’s notable waterfalls follow the Cumberland Plateau from Cookeville in the north to Monteagle in the south. When driving from Nashville, your first decision is to take I-40 east or I-24 southeast. We decided to take I-24 and work our way north. You’ll want to limit yourself to just a few falls if you plan on spending time on the trails. These were the six sites on our daytrip itinerary.
Near Altamont, Tennessee
The variety of falls and hikes at South Cumberland makes it an ideal first stop. The park is not within a single boundary, but a collection of parks separated by short drives.
Foster Falls, on the south end of the spectacular Fiery Gizzard Trail, flows 60 feet over an arc of stone. Take the sinuous two-mile hike to the base of the falls. The beauty of the hike across a swinging bridge and down to the plunge pool will lull you into nature-induced bliss and may wash away the rest of your tour plans.
The Grundy Forest Day Loop, at the north end of Fiery Gizzard, is a two-mile hike with views of multiple falls. To add additional miles, hike south to Sycamore Falls and Yellow Pine Falls. If you want a challenge, make the 13-mile trek all the way to Foster Falls and treat yourself to a swim.
Savage Gulf Wilderness Area has more than 50 miles of hiking trails, many with scenic falls. The 5-mile round-trip loop to Savage Falls is a beautiful day hike for most skill levels. Trail access is at the ranger station on the east side of the wilderness area.
Laurel Falls is an easy 500-yard stroll behind the Stone Door area ranger station. The one-mile trail to Greeter Falls is just slightly more challenging.
Near Pikeville, Tennessee
Easy access to waterfalls and trails makes Fall Creek Falls the most visited state park in Tennessee. Fall Creek Falls is the tallest single vertical drop fall east of the Mississippi River at 256 feet. The scenic overlook and trail to the base of the falls can be crowded, especially on weekends.
Cane Creek Falls and Cane Creek Cascades are popular with families because of easy parking and conveniences at the Betty Dunn Nature Center. A swinging cable bridge across Cane Creek is a popular starting point for the hike to Cane Creek gorge and the misty base of Fall Creek Falls.
Near Spencer, Tennessee
About 10 miles northeast of McMinnville, Rock Island State Park contains five notable falls including the 30-foot Great Falls cascade. The overlooks have very easy access from parking areas and you can rock-hop to the base of Great Falls and Twin Falls to get scenic views from the river gorge.
Near Sparta, Tennessee
The trails to Big Laurel Falls and Virgin Falls give hikers the full Cumberland Plateau wilderness experience. You’ll see limestone caves, smaller falls and a spectacular rocky overlook of the valley at Scott’s Gulf along the rugged to moderate 9-mile round trip trek to Virgin Falls. If you’re adventurous, pick your way along the rock-strewn fall line for a great view from behind the falls. Long periods of dry weather take these falls to a trickle.
Near Cookeville, Tennessee
The rough and rocky trails down to Cummins Falls were the northern terminus to our tour. You can see the top of the falls with an easy stroll from the parking lot. The hike into the gorge requires caution and sturdy shoes to get to the emerald pool at the base.
Near Sparta, Tennessee
Burgess Falls is a massive cascade over a semi-circle monolith of rock. Since our day trip tour of waterfalls, storms have damaged many of the access routes that we hiked. Check the state park website for the progress of repairs before visiting.