Hops and Skips

Tennessee State Park Tour: Rock Island

Waterfall enthusiasts of Nashville, head east! Seventy-five miles outside the city, you’ll find three state parks that boast impressive waterfalls as their main attraction.

During our last weekend of Summer Break freedom, we headed in this direction for the 20th stop (!!) on our Tennessee State Park Tour. The lucky pick? Rock Island State Park, located on the peninsular piece of land where the Caney Fork and Collins Rivers meet.

The Caney Fork River is well known in the region, and its name is familiar to locals, found on everything from highway signs to restaurants to paddleboard outfitters. Rock Island is, in fact, actually an island – a tiny one located where the Caney Fork meets the Rocky River. It’s also a town right at the meeting point of these three area rivers, established at the end of the 18th century and significant as both a transportation hub and resort town. 

On this perfectly sunny summer Saturday morning, it was immediately evident that Rock Island is not a park “off the beaten path.” The Visitor Center was already seeing a heavy rotation of people, and it was not yet even 10am. This appeared to be the norm; as we entered, park staff handed out maps and recited their recommended stops as if they’d been asked a hundred times already [no, there apparently is not any “best-kept-secret” in the park] before pointing to the self-serve passport stamp station.

Following the recommended route, we headed east into the park along Great Falls Road and stopped just past the TVA Hydro Plant. A small parking lot offers a panoramic aerial view of the Great Falls below, as well as a launch pad to explore the 19th-century cotton mill and spring house. The area experienced a manufacturing boom throughout the mid-1800s with both the railroad and river nearby for transport. The three-story brick building, still standing on park property, was built in 1892 as a cotton mill and with it developed the small town of Fall City that supported the mill and its workers. Unfortunately, the mill only lasted a decade; a 1902 flood knocked it out of production, and it’s been sitting with an uncertain future ever since.

The overlook is impressive and the history a nice touch, but Rock Island’s real centerpiece is Twin Falls. It takes another fifteen-minute drive east through the town of Rock Island, across to the north shore of the Caney Fork River, then doubling back west along Powerhouse Road. It was still morning, but the parking lot was packed. We followed the lot downhill to the split for either the Upstream or Downstream Trail. Upstream was closed but is shorter and steeper; the 1.6-mile Downstream Trail loop begins with a descent down a set of stairs next to the TVA Powerhouse. The falls are visible immediately, and the trail continues to hug the gorge, offering some pretty breathtaking views. There are many rocks and boulders off the trail’s path that provide an even-closer viewpoint, and we were plotting our path when the sirens started to blare.

As the TVA spills water from the dam, the downstream flow can increase drastically in a short amount of time. Sirens alert people in the area that water levels may rapidly rise, and of course this happened just as we had begun our hike.

We continued along the trail – flat and shaded and still within earshot of that ceaseless warning sound – until we reached a steep staircase and veered off to investigate. It turned out to be Little Falls, a small waterfall that runs off the roof of a cave, offering a short but satisfying side trip. We turned around before the trail even began to loop back to its start; with a closer look at the falls officially off the table and the sirens killing the peaceful vibe, our impending lunch break started to take precedence. The falls were impressive and beautiful – probably the largest, most expansive I’ve seen in person; I just wish I’d known to check the TVA schedule ahead of time.

Sources & Further Reading: Great Falls Cotton Mill | Historic Cotton Mill Toured

CHECKLIST:

Date: July 2022
Count: 20 of 56
Must-See: Twin Falls – just check the release schedule first!

DIRECTIONS:

Rock Island State Park is annoyingly situated right in between interstates 40 and 24! You have a few options for route (from Nashville): follow I-40E to Cookeville and follow US-111S through Sparta, to US-70S; take I-24E through Murfreesboro before heading east on US-70S; or exit I-40E at Watertown and follow US-70 to TN-56 and US-287. Check traffic for the most efficient route.

Click here to read more of our adventures in Tennessee State Parks!

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